US judge: Injection sites don’t violate federal drug laws

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PHILADELPHIA — A federal judge ruled Wednesday that supervised injection sites designed to prevent overdoses would not violate federal drug laws, potentially giving advocates in Philadelphia and elsewhere a boost in their efforts to open such centers.

U.S. District Judge Gerald A. McHugh said there’s no evidence that Congress intended 1980s-era drug laws to cover such a facility. The ruling could clear the way for Philadelphia to open what would be the nation’s first legally sanctioned site where people could inject drugs and have medical help nearby if they overdose.

“Safe injection sites were not considered by Congress and could not have been, because their use as a possible harm reduction strategy among opioid users had not yet entered public discourse,” McHugh said in his ruling.

U.S. Attorney William McSwain, an appointee of Republican President Donald Trump, had gone to court in Philadelphia to stop the planned opening of the city’s center, calling the goal “laudable” but supporters misguided.

Mayor Jim Kenney, District Attorney Larry Krasner and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, all Democrats, believe the program would reduce the city's 1,100 annual overdose deaths and help steer users into treatment.

Rendell helped found the nonprofit group backing the plan, called Safehouse, after the overdose death of a family friend.

Ronda Goldfein, a Safehouse vice president, said the group would seek clarity from McHugh in the next few weeks on whether to move forward with plans to open sites across the city.

McSwain could also appeal the decision. His office did not have an immediate response to the ruling.

The issue has divided public officials in Philadelphia and around the nation, although similar sites are in use in Canada and Europe. Supervised injection sites are also being considered in other U.S. cities including Seattle, New York, San Francisco and Somerville, Massachusetts.

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