DOJ Official Threatens Philly's Potential Safe Injection Sites

PHILADELPHIA – Philadelphia has seriously eyed opening safe injection sites in efforts to prevent opioid overdoses and the spread of disease through intravenous needle sharing. The Mayor’s Task Force to Combat the Opioid Epidemic even provided a report with recommendations on the sites, called Comprehensive User Engagement Sites (CUES).

But in a new interview with WHYY, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein threatened swift and aggressive legal action should the city move ahead with the CUES.

“I’m not aware of any valid basis for the argument that you can engage in criminal activity as long as you do it in the presence of someone with a medical license,” he told WHYY in the interview Wednesday.

He said the CUES would essentially be “inviting people to bring these illegal drugs into their places of business” and establishing the CUES violates federal law.

Philadelphia is one of a few cities in the nation to float the idea. Others are San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, and Ithaca, New York.

According to the city, CUES are walk-in medical intervention centers where essential services – including referral to treatment centers, supervised drug use, and access to sterile injection equipment as well as naloxone – are provided to reduce substance use, the harms associated with substance use, and fatal overdoses, officials said.

The development by a private-sector entities of one or more CUES is a harm-reduction strategy, and taken together with multiple other strategies will move the city forward in addressing the opioid crisis by saving lives and reducing the public disorder caused by open air drug use, officials said.

The task force issued 18 recommendations on CUES, leading the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, to being implementing many of the recommendations presented by the Task Force. See those recommendations here.

While the city will not operate or fund the sites, city agencies and officials will bring together key stakeholders and identify organizations that are interested in operating, funding, or offering a location for such facilities, officials said.

In closing his interview, Rosenstein would not comment on how the Department of Justice would enforce the crackdown or who would be arrested in connection with CUES operations.

Rosentein’s threat isn’t the first aimed at Philadelphia from a top federal government official. Attorney General Jeff Sessions previously threatened to withhold federal funds meant for local law enforcement from Philadelphia and other “sanctuary cities” if those cities failed to comply with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in deportation efforts.

However, a federal judge in June ruled that the Trump Administration’s attempt to withhold funds from the city violates constitutional law after the city filed a lawsuit against the administration.

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley told Philly.com in response to Rosenstein’s threat that officials are open all options in order to save lives amid the opioid epidemic.

In December 2017, city officials released a scientific review of studies of supervised injection facilities, which showed that these facilities reduce deaths from drug overdose; prevent HIV, hepatitis C, and other infections; and help drug users get into treatment.

The report estimates that one site in Philadelphia could prevent up to 76 deaths from drug overdose each year.

The review also concluded that a CUES would also help clean up communities hit hard by drug use, as CUES have been shown to reduce the number of littered syringes and other injection materials, the amount of drug injection in public, and neighbors’ perception of disorder.

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