PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The top federal prosecutor in Philadelphia has filed suit to stop a nonprofit from opening a first-in-the-nation supervised drug injection site to address the city's opioid problem.
The lawsuit pits U.S. Attorney William McSwain's stance on safe injection sites against those of Philadelphia's mayor, district attorney and a former Pennsylvania governor. McSwain believes supporters should try to change the laws, not break them.
"Normalizing the use of deadly drugs like heroin and fentanyl is not the answer to solving the epidemic," McSwain said at a Wednesday news conference, while protesters gathered outside his office on Independence Mall.
They said thousands of people could die of overdoses in Philadelphia in the time it might take to change the law.
Philadelphia has the highest opioid death rate of any large U.S. city, with more than 1,000 deaths per year. In response, Mayor Jim Kenney and others have come to support a nonprofit group's plan to open a safe injection site.
It's likely to be located in the Kensington neighborhood, north of downtown, where so-called "drug tourists" flock to buy high-grade heroin and city librarians have learned to use Naloxone to respond to bathroom overdoses.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who's visited a safe injection program in Vancouver, said McSwain is relying on the failed drug policies of the past. He said workers at the site don't administer drugs, but instead nudge users if they fall asleep or have trouble breathing and, as a last resort, administer Naloxone.
"We are not going to prosecute people who are trying to stop people from dying," Krasner said after McSwain's announcement. "We had 1,200 people die last year. I think it is inexcusable to play politics with their lives."
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a fellow Democrat, serves on the board of Safehouse, the nonprofit working to raise $1.8 million to open an injection site this spring. He's willing to be arrested over the issue, given the overdose death of a 30-year-old family friend.
Rendell also sanctioned the city's first needle exchange program as Philadelphia mayor in the 1990s. It's been in place for 26 years without any interference from federal prosecutors, who could weigh drug paraphernelia charges, he said.
He's urged McSwain to show the same restraint with Safehouse, to no avail. If McSwain wins the court case, Rendell said, the board may challenge any injunction he seeks to shut the program down.
"We (would) probably go ahead ... and see if the federal government wants to arrest nurses, doctors, nuns and a former governor," Rendell told The Associated Press.
McSwain said he hopes the civil lawsuit - a pre-emptive strike of sorts - will prompt a judge to declare the plan illegal under the 1986 "crack house statute," which was aimed at people running drug dens. Critics say the statute is being misapplied.
"We are not arresting anyone," said McSwain, a President Trump appointee. "We're not trying to seize any property or do any thing heavy-handed at all. We're just asking the federal court to look at it."
The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh Jr., a West Philadelphia native appointed by President Obama.
Protester Lisa Kelley, a 48-year-old artist, grew up in Kensington, known even then as a drug haven, if on a smaller scale. She believes the Safehouse program would help the neighborhood as well as users.
"I absolutely believe it would help the community," said Kelley, who lost a friend, addiction activist Paul Yabor, to an overdose two years ago and has a foster son in recovery. "It would cut down on the needles found on the street, cut down on the number of people using on the street, cut down on the number of kids having to see that when they're walking to school in the morning."