A federal court ruling Wednesday that allows the nation’s first safe injection site to open in Philadelphia has boosted the hopes of advocates for a similar facility in Massachusetts.
US District Judge Gerald McHugh ruled that operating a center where people can use illegal drugs under medical supervision does not violate federal law.
Although the Philadelphia court does not have jurisdiction over Massachusetts, McHugh’s decision is expected to have an impact nationwide. It is the first court ruling to poke holes in a key argument of opponents — one repeatedly made by Governor Charlie Baker — that such a facility cannot open because it violates federal law.
“This ruling provides clarity nationwide as well as a promising path forward in Massachusetts,” said Massachusetts state Senator Julian Cyr, co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery, which held a hearing Tuesday on a bill to allow such a site in Massachusetts. “It gives clarity to the No. 1 question, ‘well, isn’t this illegal on the federal level?’ ”
Leo Beletsky, Northeastern University professor of law and health sciences, said that legally the Philadelphia ruling has limited impact, but symbolically, “it’s very momentous and important.”
“Some folks have had cold feet because they didn’t want to put people at risk of a federal crackdown. This decision will allay those fears somewhat,” Beletsky said.
The facilities, also known as safe consumption sites, are common in Canada, Europe, and Australia, where they have been found to prevent deaths by giving people access to immediate medical care if they overdose. None operate legally in the United States, but several cities are weighing the idea.
Philadelphia’s proposal, by a nonprofit named Safehouse, was put on hold earlier this year when federal prosecutors sued to stop it. Opponents have pointed to a provision in the Controlled Substances Act that prohibits “maintaining a premises” for illegal drug use. The law was intended to combat “crack houses” where users gather to buy and take drugs.
But McHugh determined that the law clearly wasn’t targeting life-saving public health measures.
“I cannot conclude that Safehouse has, as a significant purpose, the objective of facilitating drug use,” he wrote in his opinion. “Safehouse plans to make a place available for the purposes of reducing the harm of drug use, administering medical care, encouraging drug treatment, and connecting participants with social services.”
The Philadelphia ruling “is absolutely the correct interpretation of the crack house legislation,” said Massachusetts state Senator Cindy F. Friedman, who served on a state commission that recommended opening a safe injection site in Massachusetts.
“Of course that statute wasn’t meant for people who want to save lives,” she said. “It’s absurd that anyone would think that.” Friedman said the ruling provides “some good momentum to move this forward” in Massachusetts.
The decision is likely to be appealed, and it’s unclear whether Safehouse will be free to move forward during the litigation.
But in Massachusetts the ruling put wind in the sails of sputtering effort to win state authorization for a similar site.
“For the first time, a federal court has affirmed what we’ve been arguing here in Massachusetts,” Carl Sciortino, vice president of government and community relations at Fenway Health, said in an e-mail to the Globe. “Supervised consumption sites are a legal and effective intervention that will save lives and connect people to care as a part of a harm reduction strategy.”
Jim Stewart, a leader in SIFMA-NOW, a Massachusetts advocacy group pushing for safe injection sites, said he hopes ruling “might speed things up.”
“Certainly enough people have been dying and enough people contracting serious illness to justify some kind of bold initiative,” he said.
Beletsky, the Northeastern law professor, noted that Safehouse, the Philadelphia nonprofit, does not have any local or state authorization to open its site.
In Massachusetts, the proposed legislation would provide that backing.
“A facility that would be governed by state or local legislation would be on stronger footing,” he said. “If Massachusetts were to authorize a facility like this, by law then you could raise questions about states’ rights versus federal intervention.”
But even if the Legislature approves such a measure, it will probably face pushback from the governor, who has not wavered in his opposition.
Asked for comment on the Philadelphia ruling, Baker’s press secretary, Sarah Finlaw, said in a statement: “The Baker-Polito Administration remains focused on the legal, safe and evidence-based approaches to treatment, recovery and education that are already underway and have helped make Massachusetts one of very few states where opioid-related overdose deaths decreased in 2017 and 2018.”
The US attorney for Massachusetts, Andrew E. Lelling, also opposes safe injection sites, and has pledged to prosecute anyone who opened such a site in his district. His office did not reply to a request for comment Wednesday.