PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — A landmark ruling Wednesday paved the way for a supervised injection site in Philadelphia. While advocates won this battle, opponents say the war isn’t over.
More than 1,100 people died from overdoses in Philadelphia last year. Opioids were involved in the vast majority of them.
The city says offering a space for those who suffer from addiction to use will save lives. But the federal government and many neighbors do not want it.
Had the judge ruled in favor of the federal government, supervised injection sites would have been dead in the water. But plans to open one in Philadelphia are now moving forward.
Philadelphia has one of the highest overdose rates of any major city in the country, and Kensington is ground zero for the opioid epidemic.
“It’s a mess,” Bernadette Sterling said.
Sterling has lived near Kensington Avenue and East Cambria Street for more than four decades. She says not a single day passes where she’s not reminded of the crisis.
“It’s nothing. It’s like walking zombies,” she said.
Even seeing the problem firsthand, Sterling says she’s not in favor of so-called safe injection sites, where people can use heroin while medical staff stand by with the overdose reversal drug Naloxone.
“I don’t support any of this,” Sterling said.
But those supervised injection sites could soon open up.
A federal judge ruled Wednesday that the facilities do not violate federal law.
“It is the first of its kind in the United States,” Linda Dale Hoffa, a law partner at Dilworth Paxon LLP, said.
Hoffa, a former federal prosecutor, explains the government argued Philadelphia’s plans violated a part of the U.S. Controlled Substances Act, which is also known as the Crackhouse Law.
“The United States Attorney says operating a safe injection site where they will facilitate the use of illegal drugs is the same as operating a crackhouse,” Hoffa said.
But Judge Gerald McHugh says the intent of the 1986 bill is very different than what is being proposed with Philly’s plan.
“The judge said there is a different purpose going on here, and the purpose of the safe injection site is to help,” Hoffa said.
“I can see both sides,” a community activist named Bernard said.
Bernard volunteers his time picking up used needles. He knows neighbors are concerned, but he believes the injection sites would provide immediate access to treatment and a way to help slow such a devastating problem.
“It’s got to go in somebody’s neighborhood,” Bernard said. “It’ll be in Kensington somewhere.”
U.S. Attorney William McSwain, an appointee of Republican President Donald Trump, had gone to court in Philadelphia to try to block the plan, calling the goal “laudable” but supporters misguided.
“Today’s opinion is merely the first step in a much longer legal process that will play out. This case is obviously far from over. We look forward to continuing to litigate it, and we are very confident in our legal position,” McSwain said.
Based on that statement, it’s safe to say the decision will likely be appealed and therefore, there is no timeline on when a supervised injection site could open.