Federal Appeals Court Rejects Plans for Supervised Injection Site

Last Updated: Jan 13, 2021

In a 2-1 decision issued on Jan. 12, 2021, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that the opening of a supervised injection site in Philadelphia, where people could bring illicit drugs and inject them under medical supervision to prevent overdoses, would violate federal law.

The Court’s full opinion authored by Circuit Judge Stephanos Bibas as well as a dissenting opinion authored by Circuit Judge Jane Richards Roth can be accessed here.

Background of Case

Over the past few years, several cities (such as Philadelphia, New York, and San Francisco) have proposed the creation of supervised injection sites, where people can use illicit drugs with trained staff ready to respond in case of an overdose. Safehouse, a Philadelphia non-profit organization, sought to build the first such facility in Pennsylvania.  

The United State Department of Justice (DOJ) launched legal actions to block the Safehouse facility in Philadelphia through the federal court system. In October of 2019, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that the opening of Safehouse’s facility did not violate the federal Controlled Substances Act. Opining that the ultimate goal of Safehouse's proposed operation is to reduce drug use and not to facilitate it, the District Court permitted Safehouse’s proposed site to move forward. DOJ subsequently appealed the District Court’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

The Third Circuit ruled that although the opioid crisis may call for innovative solutions, local innovations may not break federal law. The Court recognized the admirable goal of Safehouse to save lives, but ultimately concluded that federal law prohibits running a place for the purpose of manufacturing, selling, or using drugs. Specifically, federal law (see 21 U.S.C. 856(a)(2)) makes it illegal to “manage or control” a property and then “knowingly and intentionally” open it to visitors “for the purpose of ... using a controlled substance.” Applying this provision to Safehouse’s proposed supervised injection site, the Court found that Safehouse’s proposal would be illegal.

The Third Circuit ruling reverses Safehouse’s earlier victory in in the District Court and returns the case back to the District Court for further proceedings regarding Safehouse’s counterclaim that its program would be allowed under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

PAMED Advocacy

Pursuant to policy passed at the Pennsylvania Medical Society’s (PAMED) 2019 House of Delegates, PAMED issued a statement endorsing the opening of independently funded and studied pilot trials of a comprehensive illicit drug user engagement site including safer injection facilities.

Additionally, PAMED joined the American Medical Association (AMA) and the Philadelphia County Medical Society as well as other stakeholder organizations in submitting an amicus curiae brief to the Third Circuit in support of supervised consumption sites as a method to help combat the opioid crisis.

A copy of the amicus brief can be accessed here.

PAMED will continue to monitor the case for additional development and provide updates accordingly.

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