NEW YORK – A year after winning a major legal battle over the opening of so-called safe injection sites – safe havens for people to use heroin and other narcotics with protections against fatal overdoses – the Department of Justice signals that it might be open to allowing them.
In response to questions from The Associated Press, the Justice Department said it was “assessing” those facilities and talking with regulators about “appropriate safeguards.”
The stance is a stark departure from his stance in the Trump administration, when prosecutors fought vigorously against a plan to open a safe consumption site in Philadelphia. The Justice Department won a lawsuit last year when a Pennsylvania federal appeals court ruled that opening such a facility would violate a 1980s drug law, targeting ‘crackhouses’ , which prohibits the operation of a place of consumption of illegal drugs. The Supreme Court declined to take up the case in October.
About six weeks later, the first officially licensed safe injection sites opened in New York in November. Both facilities — which the city calls “overdose prevention centers” — provide a supervised place for drug addicts, with staff and supplies on hand to reverse overdoses.
Such sites exist in Canada, Australia and Europe and have been discussed for years in New York and other US cities and states. A few unofficial installations have been working for some time.
Supporters hailed them as a way to curb the scourge of overdose deaths. Based on the latest available death certificate data, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 100,000 Americans died from drug overdoses from May 2020 to April 2021.
Critics, however, argue that safe injection sites encourage illegal drug use and overwhelm neighborhoods.
For months after President Joe Biden took office last year, the Justice Department — under Attorney General Merrick Garland — refused to take a public position on safe consumption sites. Officials now say they are evaluating their use.
“While we cannot comment on ongoing litigation, the Department is evaluating supervised consumption sites, including discussions with state and local regulators about appropriate safeguards for these sites, as part of a comprehensive approach harm reduction and public safety,” the agency said in a statement Friday to the AP.
The New York sites have so far responded to more than 125 overdoses among more than 640 users, many of whom have made multiple visits, according to OnPoint NYC, the organization that operates them.
Executive Director Sam Rivera said he was excited and relieved by the Justice Department’s statement. The group is eager to talk to the agency about their work, he said.
“I think they’re going to land in the right place here and together we can really grow this health initiative that saves lives every day,” he said.
Former Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat whose administration allowed the centers to open, said city prosecutors believe the federal law is “targeting drug trafficking, not medical facilities,” as he qualified consumption sites.
But U.S. Representative Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican from New York, urged Garland to work to shut them down, citing the appeals court ruling against the Philadelphia proposal last year. She told Garland in November that it was “imperative that you enforce this legal precedent,” and she wasn’t thrilled to hear about the Justice Department’s new statement.
“Instead of stopping deadly drugs from crossing our border, putting drug traffickers behind bars, and helping people get the long-term treatment they need to overcome addiction, Democratic leadership is allowing the illegal drug use,” Malliotakis said in a statement.
The Philadelphia project, called Safehouse, is still battling for court approval to open. Safehouse attorneys Ronda Goldfein and Ilana Eisenstein said they hope the Justice Department’s new statement “signals the prospect of a positive resolution, not just for Philadelphia, but for any place in America that seeks to provide overdose prevention services”.
Some other branches of the federal government have also signaled a willingness to at least explore safe injection facilities, if not adopt them. When asked about the New York sites, White House drug czar Dr. Rahul Gupta told CNN in December that he was “interested in examining the science and data behind all the emerging practices. risk reduction”.
Later that month, the National Institutes of Health issued a call for harm reduction research that mentioned safe consumption sites, among other approaches.