The Justice Department and a Philadelphia nonprofit have agreed to transfer a case regarding the legality of safe drug consumption sites out of a federal district court and to mediation before a magistrate judge. to finally reach a resolution after many delays.
Safehouse — which spent years in litigation after the DOJ sued to stop them from opening a harm reduction center under the Trump administration — said in an email on Tuesday that the parties had reached a settlement. an agreement to move to mediation last week “to expedite a quick resolution and start saving lives. The nonprofit said it hopes the tactic “is the best way to quickly resolve the lawsuit “.
It comes about a month after the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania issued an order requiring the DOJ to reveal its position in the lawsuit by Jan. 9. It represented a compromise between the department’s request to have until February and the nonprofit’s position that it would no longer voluntarily agree to further delays after agreeing to continually push back the government’s deadline.
For much of the years-long case, Safehouse had described discussions with the DOJ as productive, and as such, he agreed to give the department more time to consider his position. But over time, the organization eventually determined that further delay would be untenable.
On Tuesday, the court issued the mediation order that transfers the case to US Magistrate Judge Richard Lloret. Proponents believe this will expedite the case, which they hope will ultimately clarify the federal position on safe consumption sites where people can currently consume illicit drugs in a medically supervised setting.
Marijuana Moment has reached out to Safehouse staff and attorneys for comment on the development, but they have not responded at press time.
Last February, the DOJ said it was “assessing supervised consumption sites, including discussions with state and local regulators about appropriate safeguards for these sites, as part of a comprehensive approach to reducing wrongdoing and public safety”.
Safehouse has gradually lost patience with the department’s protracted review process and requests for extensions of time in the case, writing in a recent filing that the case “has been pending for nearly four years.”
“Since the DOJ initiated this litigation in 2019 through the end of 2021, more than 3,600 lives have been lost in Philadelphia due to the opioid overdose crisis. Based on 2022 projections, that number will rise to nearly 5,000 deaths,” he said. “Safehouse and those who need its lifesaving services have waited long enough.”
In October 2021, the United States Supreme Court denied a request to hear a case on the legality of the establishment of the Safehouse facilities.
In a recent report, congressional researchers pointed to the “uncertainty” of the federal government’s position on safe drug consumption sites, while pointing out that lawmakers could temporarily fix the problem by proposing an amendment inspired by the one that enabled the implementation of medical marijuana laws. without interference from the Department of Justice.
As the Philadelphia facility stalls amid litigation, New York City opened the first locally-sanctioned harm reduction centers in the United States in late 2021, and authorities have already reported results positive to save lives.
The Congressional Research Service (CRS) pointed to the discrepancy, stating that while “the DOJ actively opposed the operation of supervised consumption sites under the Trump administration, to date, the Biden administration has not did not seek to invoke the [Controlled Substances Act] against such facilities.
The report was released days after National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) director Nora Volkow tacitly endorsed the idea of allowing safe consumption sites, arguing that the evidence has indeed demonstrated that facilities can prevent overdose deaths.
Volkow declined to say specifically what she would do if she was president and the Trump-era lawsuit was dropped, but she said researched safe consumer sites “showed that this saved a significant amount [percentage of] overdose patients.
The comments represent one of the strongest positions in favor of upcoming safe consumption sites from a federal official, and they are all the more notable given the federal government’s position in the lawsuit that has so far present prevented Safehouse from providing the service.
That said, Rahul Gupta, the White House drug czar, recently said the Biden administration is considering broader drug policy harm reduction proposals, including authorizing drug sites. supervised consumption – and he went so far as to suggest possible decriminalization.
A study published by the American Medical Association (AMA) in July found that newly opened facilities in New York reduced the risk of overdose, diverted people from drinking in public and provided other ancillary health services to people who currently use illicit substances.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched a pair of Requests for Nominations (RFAs) in December 2021 for an effort that will provide funding for efforts to study how this policy and other harm reduction policies could help solve the drug crisis.
Gupta, the director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), has previously said it’s essential to explore “all options” to reduce overdose deaths, and that could include the authorizing safe consumption sites for illegal substances if evidence supports their effectiveness.
US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra also signaled that the Biden administration would not move to block the establishment of safe injection sites, noting that “we are literally trying to give users a lifeline”.
But a department spokesperson later backtracked on the remarks, saying “HHS does not have a position on supervised consumption sites” and “the matter is a matter of ongoing litigation.” Either way, it would be up to the DOJ to decide whether to prosecute the operators of the facilities under the Controlled Substances Act.
In 2021, the Governor of Rhode Island signed a bill establishing a pilot program to allow safe consumption sites to operate in the state.
A New York Assembly committee introduced a bill in May to establish a statewide safe consumption sites program, allowing regulators to license facilities where people might use drugs currently illicit in a medically supervised environment.
In a pair of setbacks for advocates, however, the governor of Vermont vetoed a bill in June that would simply have created a task force to develop a plan to open safe drinking sites and the governor of California vetoed a bill in August to authorize a pilot program. for harm reduction centers.
Read the federal court’s mediation order in the Safe Drug Consumption Site case below:
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Photo courtesy of Jernej Furman.