A coalition of Pennsylvania community groups is seeking to intervene in a federal lawsuit on the legality of safe drug consumption sites, saying that they fear the government “may imminently abandon” the case.
Twenty local organization filed a motion to intervene as party-plaintiffs on Tuesday, asking a federal district court to allow them to step in out of concern that the Department of Justice plans to back off of the lawsuit it filed under the Trump administration, which blocked the establishment of a safe consumption facility in Philadelphia where people could use currently illicit drugs in a medically supervised setting.
The case has been repeatedly delayed as DOJ evaluated its position on the harm reduction centers, with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania agreeing to a series of deadline extension requests from the government. While the non-profit Safehouse agreed to several extensions, it opposed one of the government’s most recent requests for more time, and the court ordered DOJ to reveal its position by January.
But before that happened, however, both Safehouse and the department instead agreed to transfer the case to mediation before a magistrate judge to settle the issue.
The status of that mediation is unclear, but the various community groups evidently feel that DOJ is prepared to cede the case and potentially authorize the safe consumption site—a decision that would align with the White House’s overall embrace of harm reduction policies to reduce overdose deaths and promote treatment.
The groups are asking the court for a decision on the motion to intervene before a settlement conference scheduled for Thursday.
“The Community Groups seek immediate intervention to protect the interests the Government may imminently abandon,” the motions ays. “For decades, the Community Groups’ members have suffered the consequences of their neighborhoods’ infestation with crime and drugs.”
The Community Groups behind the filing include are: Delancey Square Town Watch, East Passyunk Avenue Business Improvement District, Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge #5, Friends of Harrowgate Park, Friends of Penrose, Girard Estate Area Residents, Harrowgate Civic Association, Holme Circle Civic Association, Juniata Park Civic Association, Kensington Independent Civic Association, North of Washington Avenue Coalition, Packer Park Civic Association, Point Breeze Community Development Coalition, Port Richmond On Patrol And Civic, Queen Village Neighbors Association, Somerton Civic Association, South Broad Street Neighborhood Association, South Philadelphia Business Association, South Port Richmond Civic Association and the Whitman Council.
Following years of litigation, “the Government has signaled an abrupt reversal of its position, threatening the health, safety, and property rights of the Community Groups’ members,” their filing continues. “Without intervention, the law and Philadelphia’s neighborhoods may be left with no defense.”
Safehouse has previously described its discussions with the Justice Department as productive, though the organization has grown frustrated by the repeated delays in the legal proceedings at the government’s request.
Marijuana Moment reached out to DOJ for comment on the new filing by the community groups, but a representative was not immediately available.
“Expedited consideration is necessary to ensure that the Community Groups can participate in further settlement discussions between Safehouse and the Government,” the motion says. “Without the Groups’ intervention, the Government’s position flip could compromise the Groups’ rights and necessitate further litigation. Moreover, a settlement could clear the path for Safehouse to construct injection sites immediately, violating the Community Groups’ rights, not to mention federal criminal law.”
Representatives of the neighborhood groups met with U.S. Attorney Jacqueline Romero last month at the office’s request, and the groups were left with the impression that “the Government will imminently abandon” an earlier circuit court ruling that deemed safe consumption sites federally illegal and “permit Safehouse to operate in violation of federal law.”
“The Community Groups, who have appeared as amici in this Court and the Third Circuit, were happy to support the Government’s position when it was enforcing the law and protecting Philadelphia’s most vulnerable neighborhoods,” the filing says. “But now that the Government appears poised to switch sides in this case, the Groups must intervene to ensure their health, safety, and property interests remain protected.”
“The motion to intervene should be granted before the next settlement conference,” it concludes. “At a minimum, the Community Groups should be permitted to intervene before the Government seeks to enter into any settlement.”
Last year, DOJ said that it was “evaluating supervised consumption sites, including discussions with state and local regulators about appropriate guardrails for such sites, as part of an overall approach to harm reduction and public safety.”
In October 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a request to hear a case on the legality of establishing the Safehouse facilities.
In a recent report, congressional researchers highlighted the “uncertainty” of the federal government’s position on safe drug consumption sites, while pointing out that lawmakers could temporarily resolve the issue by advancing an amendment modeled after the one that has allowed medical marijuana laws to be implemented without Justice Department interference.
While the Philadelphia facility is being held up amid litigation, New York City opened the first locally sanctioned harm reduction centers in the U.S. in late 2021, and officials have already reported positive results in saving lives.
The Congressional Research Service (CRS) pointed out the discrepancy, stating that while “DOJ actively opposed the operation of supervised consumption sites under the Trump Administration, to date the Biden Administration has not sought to invoke the [Controlled Substances Act] against such facilities.”
The report was published days after National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Nora Volkow tacitly endorsed the idea of authorizing safe consumption sites, arguing that evidence has effectively demonstrated that the facilities can prevent overdose deaths.
Volkow declined to specifically say what she would do if she were president and the Trump-era lawsuit was dropped, but she said that safe consumption sites that have been the subject of research “have shown that it has saved a significant [percentage of] patients from overdosing.”
The comments represent one of the strongest positions in favor of safe consumption sites to come from a federal official, and they’re all the more notable given the federal government’s position in the lawsuit that’s so far blocked Safehouse from providing the service.
That said, Rahul Gupta, the White House drug czar, has said that the Biden administration is reviewing broader drug policy harm reduction proposals, including the authorization of supervised consumption sites—and he went so far as to suggest possible decriminalization.
A study published by the American Medical Association (AMA) in July found that the recently opened New York City facilities have decreased overdose risk, steered people away from using in public and provided other ancillary health services to people who use currently illicit substances.
Read the new motion in the safe consumption site federal lawsuit below:
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