United States v. Safehouse
Safehouse is a public health approach to overdose prevention in Philadelphia. Our proposed services include medically supervised consumption.
In February 2019, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania filed a civil lawsuit asking a federal court to declare that supervised consumption sites are illegal under 21 U.S.C. §856(a), a section of the Controlled Substances Act colloquially known as the “Crack House” Statute. The lawsuit did not seek money or to seize property or criminally prosecute any party.
This matter has a been of great interest beyond Philadelphia. Amicus (friends of the court) briefs on behalf of 132 individuals and organizations were filed in the District Court case. The amici included 64 current and former prosecutors and law enforcement officials, 8 states, and 6 cities in support of Safehouse. Seven amici were filed in opposition, and 4 law professors supported of neither party.
On October 2, 2019, a U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh ruled that “the ultimate goal of Safehouse’s proposed operation is to reduce drug use, not facilitate it, and accordingly, §856(a) does not prohibit Safehouse’s proposed conduct."
On February 25, 2020, the court entered a Final Declaratory Judgement for Safehouse, finding that our proposed activities did not violate federal law. Safehouse began preparations to open, despite a loud response from neighbors who rejected the idea of supervised consumption.
Two days later, the government filed a Notice of Appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit and a motion for an emergency stay. The Emergency Motion for Stay asked the court to prevent Safehouse from opening a supervised consumption site until the Third Circuit issues their judgement, further delaying our efforts to bring critical life-saving harm reduction services to Philadelphia. On March 10, 2020, Safehouse requested that a stay not be issued. Within a week, the city was locked down due to the coronavirus.
On June 24, 2020, the court granted the government’s Emergency Motion for Stay. While confirming the efficacy of Safehouse’s proposed activities, Judge McHugh wrote that he was bound to consider the public interest. He based his decision to grant the stay on Philadelphia’s increased instability due to the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest.
As the case moved to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, the amici again showed a strong interest in the outcome. Sixteen amicus (friends of the court) briefs were filed. More than 200 individuals and organizations composed of 85 current and former prosecutors and law enforcement officials, 10 states, and 6 cities, filed 2 amicus briefs in support of Safehouse. Four amicus, including 15 Republicans serving in the Pennsylvania legislature and the U.S. Congress, filed briefs in opposition.
Oral arguments were held before a three member panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals on November 16, 2020. To hear a recording of the oral arguments, click here.
On January 12, 2021, in a 2-1 split, the court ruled against Safehouse. The dissenting opinion found that Safehouse cannot violate the statute because it does not have the requisite “purpose” per the language of the statute.
We filed a Petition for Rehearing En Banc on February 26 requesting a rehearing before the entire panel. Our request was denied on March 24, although three judges issued a strong dissent to the denial.
In the two years since the U.S. Attorney's Office filed suit against Safehouse, the interest in overdose prevention services continues to grow. Rhode Island, New Mexico, and Illinois all have bills on the move to legalize supervised consumption.
The American Rescue Plan Act, the $1.9 trillion relief package enacted in March 2021 also commits $4 billion to address the overdose crisis, including $30 million "to support community-based overdose prevention programs, syringe services programs, and other harm reduction services."
President Biden's Office of National Drug Control Policy issued a thoughtful statement on its drug policy priorities for year one. Among the encouraging priorities, is a call to "support on the clinical effectiveness of emerging harm reduction practices in real world settings and test strategies to best implement these evidence-based practices."
All worthwhile social change comes about through hard work. We remain confident that this evidence-based initiative will become part of the U.S. toolkit to support those struggling with substance use.
For now, Safehouse will continue to pursue its legal options before the U.S. Supreme Court and the federal district court.
Below are the legal documents that have been filed in the Safehouse case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit and the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
- 3 amicus (friends of the court) briefs on behalf of the Mayor and Health Commissioner of Philadelphia; 14 cities and counties; and 8 states and the Washington D.C. were filed in support of Safehouse.
- 16 amicus (friends of the court) briefs were filed. 206 individuals and organizations, composed of 85 current and former prosecutors and law enforcement officials, 10 states, and 6 cities, filed 12 amicus briefs in support of Safehouse. Four amicus, including 15 Republicans serving in the Pennsylvania legislature and the U.S. Congress filed briefs in opposition.
United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania
- 2 amicus (friends of the court) briefs were filed. 6 individuals who are friends and families of victims of opioid addiction, along with Philadelphia’s Mayor and Health Commissioner, filed a brief in support of Safehouse. Civic Associations and the Fraternal Order of Police filed a brief in opposition.
- 13 amicus (friends of the court) briefs were filed. 132 individuals and organizations, composed of 64 current and former prosecutors and law enforcement officials, 8 states, and 6 cities, filed 11 amicus briefs in support of Safehouse. 7 amici filed a brief in opposition and 4 law professors filed a brief in support of neither party.