Overdose prevention network advocates for safe injection site

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Moses Santana speaks at the demonstration outside the federal courthouse.

While oral arguments in the case USA v. Safehouse took place at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on Monday, Philadelphia Overdose Prevention Network (POPN), a composite of several local social justice organizations, held a demonstration outside the courthouse demanding, “overdose prevention, not incarceration!” 

Safehouse is a nonprofit organization that hopes to open a safe injection site in Philadelphia. Members of Friends of Safehouse, Operation in My Backyard, ACT UP Philadelphia, Health Equity Advancement Lab, Philadelphia Participatory Research Collective and Reclaim Philadelphia compose the newly formed overdose prevention advocacy group.  

Speakers at Monday’s demonstration included POPN community organizers Moses Santana and Chelsea Chamroeun, ACT UP Philadelphia organizer and emcee Jamaal Henderson, Senator-elect for Pennsylvania’s first District Nikil Saval, Operation Save Our City organizer Roz Pichardo, Sterling Johnson and community members Pam, Jessica and Shay. They stood outside the federal courthouse publicly advocating for the vital role that Safehouse would play in combating Philadelphia’s opioid epidemic. 

“The number one in my opinion is to save lives,” ACT UP Philadelphia and POPN organizer José de Marco told PGN. “I believe most overdoses happen in the home. People buy street pills that are laced with fentanyl, and they think they’re getting percocet or oxys, and they’re overdosing.”

In a statement supporting Safehouse collectively written by over 25 Philadelphia health workers, Chamroeun read, “Since 2017, over 3,000 Philadelphians have died from unintentional drug overdoses.” 

Henderson put pressure on Mayor Kenney and Health Commissioner Tom Farley to “declare [drug overdoses] a public health emergency so that we can open this site without any more hassle from the federal government.” Kenney has publicly communicated his support for Safehouse. 

Black and Brown communities, LGBTQ populations and intersections thereof are more likely to experience drug abuse. The 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health indicates that 9% of sexual minority (LGBTQ) adults 18 and older reported using opioids, compared to 3.8% of their cis/het peers. According to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, the rate of overdose deaths among the U.S. Black/African American population increased by 40% from 2015-2016, compared to a 21% increase in the general population. 

In February 2019, U.S. Attorney William Mcswain, a Trump appointee, filed suit claiming that a safe injection site violated the “crackhouse statute,” a section of the Controlled Substances Act. The statute deems it illegal for someone to knowingly open or manage an establishment to make, distribute or use controlled substances. McSwain appealed the 2020 federal ruling that Safehouse would not violate the law, and sought an injunction to thwart its opening. 

Safehouse personnel faced objections from community members and council members prior to their attempted opening of the site in South Philly in early 2020. PGN previously reported that South Philly residents told Safehouse officials in a meeting that they were not consulted about the opening of the site. Councilmembers Kenyatta Johnson and Mark Squilla also made their disapproval known. 

De Marco commented on a common claim that safe injection site opposers make: that drugs will be brought into their neighborhoods if such a site is permitted to operate. “Drugs are here,” de Marco said. “If you give people a place to do it, you won’t have discarded syringes on the street.” 

In Monday’s hearing, Judges Thomas L. Ambro, Stephanos Bibas and Jane Richards Roth heard the arguments of McSwain and Safehouse Attorney Ilana Eisenstein. In an effort to shed light on how the language of the crackhouse statute would apply to Safehouse, the three judges posed hypothetical situations to both McSwain and Eisenstein. 

In an attempt to define the purpose of Safehouse, McSwain said as part of his argument, “that clearly Safehouse has a purpose of seeing that drugs are used at the place, because it is a necessary precondition to anything else that is happening at Safehouse. There’s a necessary precondition of using drugs.”

During her arguments, Eisenstein explained to the judges that “the necessary precondition of Safehouse’s existence is the overdose crisis whereby people are dying,” not to encourage drug use. 

The judges have yet to issue a ruling.