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The Justice Department Is Taking Its Hardest Line Yet To Stop Heroin Injection Sites

In the first case of its kind, a lawsuit filed by the Justice Department could preview attempts to block similar facilities around the United States.

Last updated on February 6, 2019, at 5:18 p.m. ET

Posted on February 6, 2019, at 4:07 p.m. ET

Boris Roessler / Boris Roessler/picture-alliance/dpa / AP Images

Marc (name altered upon request), 37, injects heroin at a supervised injection site in Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

The Justice Department has sued to stop the country’s first heroin injection site from opening in Philadelphia, saying the facility is prohibited by federal law, despite cries from public health advocates that the project will prevent overdose deaths and limit HIV infections.

The complaint filed Tuesday night in US District Court reveals the government’s most aggressive step to stop such facilities, apparently previewing the Trump administration’s stance against similar proposals in San Francisco, Seattle, and New York.

The crackdown also reveals the government's glaring inconsistency on drug enforcement. The Justice Department tolerates a massive marijuana industry, which is equally prohibited under federal law, while now claiming an injection site mandates enforcement.

The case comes a day after President Donald Trump vowed in his State of the Union address to eliminate HIV, a goal that will require the administration to changes its policies toward injection sites, as well as toward transgender people and immigrants, experts told BuzzFeed News.

The Justice Department is asking a federal judge to rule that Safehouse — which would allow users in Philadelphia to inject drugs under the watch of medical professionals who can reverse overdoses and provide clean needles — violates the Controlled Substance Act. Filed by William McSwain, the US attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the suit does not accuse anyone of a crime.

Drug policy reform advocates said the case “will undoubtedly cost people their lives.”

Ronda Goldfein, vice president of the Safehouse board and head of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, told BuzzFeed News she was prepared for the lawsuit.

"Our position is that this is permissible under federal law," she said, noting that lawyers will soon file a response in court. "It is realistic to think this is where we would be."

Safehouse, which has the tacit support of city officials and local prosecutors, says on its website that the facility wouldn’t violate the CSA, because it does not exist for the purpose of consuming drugs — a condition spelled out in the law.

Rather, Safehouse contends, "The purpose of a supervised consumption room is to save lives."

The Justice Department’s lawsuit takes an almost apologetic tone, noting the “good intentions” of the defendants and underscoring the difficulty of acting tough on crime while responding to a surge of narcotics overdoses. The Justice Department, however, contends its hands have been tied by Congress, which made it a crime to maintain any premises with illegal drugs on site.

“The law is clear — and it is my job to respect and enforce the rule of law," McSwain said in a press release.

“If Safehouse wants to operate an injection site, it should work through the democratic process to try to change the law,” he added. “But normalizing the use of deadly drugs like heroin and fentanyl and ignoring the law is not the answer to solving the opioid epidemic.”

However, that is the opposite of the Justice Department's stance on marijuana, which is equally illegal under the CSA.

Under the Obama administration, prosecutors said pot businesses complying with state rules would be tolerated. Former attorney general Jeff Sessions rescinded that policy, but he continued the practice of letting those businesses stay open without federal intervention. Bill Barr, Trump’s nominee to replace Sessions, repeatedly told the Senate that he would leave pot businesses alone.

Why do pot businesses and injection sites get such different treatment if they’re both illegal under the CSA? The Justice Department and the US Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania did not answer that question from BuzzFeed News.

Lindsay LaSalle, director of public health law at the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group, said in a statement: “The federal government initially attempted to interfere with state and local syringe exchange and medical cannabis programs, but hindsight has proved they were on the wrong side of science and history. And, they will be here as well.”

A 2014 study in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, based on 75 papers about injection sites abroad, found the facilities reduced deaths without encouraging abuse. The researchers found the sites were “promoting safer injection conditions, enhancing access to primary health care, and reducing the overdose frequency” and, meanwhile, “were not found to increase drug injecting, drug trafficking or crime in the surrounding environments.”

At Insite, a government-run facility in Vancouver, officials report more than 3.6 million clients have injected drugs under the watch of nurses since 2003, and there have been “6,440 overdose interventions without any deaths.”

Critics blasted the lawsuit from across the continent on Wednesday, saying it contradicted Trump's vow to reduce HIV infections in his State of the Union.

“The President is a hypocrite, and his words mean nothing,” said California state Sen. Scott Wiener in a statement. “Safe injection sites are a proven HIV prevention strategy.”

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