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Federal Court Sides With Biden DOJ To Block Drug Overdose Prevention Site, But Calls Harm Reduction Goals ‘Noble’



A federal court has granted the Justice Department’s motion to dismiss a challenge from a Pennsylvania-based harm reduction center that’s been seeking to open an overdose prevention site where people could use currently illicit drugs in a supervised setting while receiving treatment resources.

In an order and attached memo on Wednesday, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania said that while it’s “self-evident” that the non-profit Safehouse holds “noble intentions” to reduce the harms of the overdose crisis, it could not accept its arguments that the federal ban on providing safe drug consumption services violated the group’s religious rights.

DOJ first blocked Safehouse from opening the overdose prevention center under the Trump administration. Supporters hoped the department would cede the issue under President Joe Biden, who has promoted harm reduction policies as an alternative to criminalization, but the parties could not reach an agreement to allow the facility to open despite months of “good faith” negotiations.

Safehouse had asserted that it should be exempt from federal prosecution because its harm reduction mission is guided by Judeo-Christian values, therefore entitling it to protections under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and freedom of expression clause of the First Amendment.

But U.S. District Judge Gerald Austin McHugh said that, based on an analysis of the non-profit’s federal filings and various other organizational documents, he is “persuaded that Safehouse is not a religious entity.”

However, McHugh did seem to empathize with the group and its objectives.

“The noble intentions of Safehouse and its founders are self-evident, and the public health crisis they seek to address continues unabated, but their religious inspiration does not provide a shield against prosecution for violation of a federal criminal statute barring its operation,” he said.

In the lead-up to DOJ’s initial request for a dismissal of Safehouse’s lawsuit, several local lawmakers, including Democrats who champion marijuana legalization, asked the federal court to block Safehouse from opening and request for permission to file a brief in the case. A coalition of 20 Pennsylvania community groups also requested that the court allow it to intervene in the lawsuit.

A coalition of religious leaders later came out in support of the non-profit, asking the federal court to reject the federal government’s request.

The Justice Department previously declined to file a brief to offer its position on the harm reduction issue, and it asked the court for more time to respond in the “complex” case. In 2022, the department said that it was in the process of evaluating possible “guardrails” for safe consumption sites.

Last January, Safehouse and the department had agreed to transfer the case to mediation before a magistrate judge to settle the issue. The talks had been described as “productive,” leaving some advocates hopeful that DOJ might drop the case altogether. But that didn’t materialize.

The Supreme Court rejected a request to hear a case on the legality of establishing the Safehouse facilities in October 2021.

In a 2022 report, congressional researchers highlighted the “uncertainty” of the federal government’s position on safe drug consumption sites, while pointing out that lawmakers could temporarily resolve the issue by advancing an amendment modeled after the one that has allowed medical marijuana laws to be implemented without Justice Department interference.

Meanwhile, New York City opened the first locally sanctioned harm reduction centers in the U.S. in 2022, and officials have reported positive results in saving lives.

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National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Nora Volkow has tacitly endorsed the idea of authorizing safe consumption sites, arguing that evidence has effectively demonstrated that the facilities can prevent overdose deaths.

Volkow declined to say specifically what she believes should happen with the ongoing lawsuit, but she said safe consumption sites that have been the subject of research “have shown that it has saved a significant [percentage of] patients from overdosing.”

Rahul Gupta, the White House drug czar, previously said the Biden administration is reviewing broader drug policy harm reduction proposals, including the authorization of supervised consumption sites, and he went so far as to suggest possible decriminalization.

A study published by the American Medical Association (AMA) in 2022 found that the recently opened New York City facilities have decreased the risk of overdose, steered people away from using drugs in public and provided other ancillary health services to people who use illicit substances.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) put out a pair of requests for applications in December 2021 to investigate how safe consumption sites and other harm reduction policies could help address the drug crisis.

Gupta, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), has said it’s critical to explore “any and every option” to reduce overdose deaths, which could include allowing safe consumption sites for illegal substances if the evidence supports their efficacy.

Read the federal court’s ruling in the overdose prevention site case below: 

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