A 2: 1 Third Circle Appeals Court ruling that denied a proposed supervised injection facility in Philadelphia won’t stop Seattle’s plan to provide medical surveillance for drug use here, local supporters say.
However, it does raise questions about the next steps the city and county will take to contract for these services.
The U.S. Department of Justice sued the Philadelphia nonprofit Safehouse for its plan to open a facility where local people with clean syringes and medical staff could inject drugs, saying it was in violation of a 1980s federal law that allowed crack Houses should close. A majority of the three-person jury agreed and overturned the decision of a lower court.
While Seattle politicians and advocates have been calling for locally monitored injection sites since 2015 to prevent overdose deaths, political challenges and legal threats have mitigated progress on their establishment. However, last year the Seattle legislature allocated money for it Public Health – Seattle & King County Pay for these services in existing locations where drug users seek care.
Seattle City attorney Pete Holmes, who signed an amicus letter with King County Attorney Dan Satterberg last year in support of the Philadelphia Safehouse Plan, said the new verdict was “disappointing,” but said it has no “direct impact” on Seattle.
“I’m very interested to see whether Safehouse will appeal the decision,” Holmes said in a statement, noting that the panel’s separate decision would increase the likelihood that the Supreme Court will get a review.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has been cautious in her assessment of what the verdict will mean for the city’s efforts. At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, she discovered that the city had received warnings from the Trump administration not to open a monitored injection site and worked with Public Health to see what services could be provided for the health of drug users.
“We don’t know exactly what this looks like now, and this (judgment) is another wrinkle to deal with,” said the mayor.
“Regardless of today’s decision, (the Human Services division) will continue to work with Public Health – Seattle & King County to implement a proposal to expand access to drug treatment and improve services for people with substance use disorders,” a spokesman said von Durkan’s office said in a follow-up email, adding that the mayor’s office planned to meet with Public Health in the coming days.
King County’s executive communications director, Alex Fryer, said his office is still unsure of how the ruling could affect locally monitored consumption plans.
The “crack house” statute at issue makes it illegal to open or maintain an establishment for the use, sale or manufacture of drugs.
“This is putting Congress back in the spotlight to make it clear that there can be public health exceptions to the crack house statute,” Satterberg said in a statement sent via email. “You have the opportunity to legislate.”
However, local laws don’t have to be in line with federal drug laws, according to Washington’s American Civil Liberties Union, which has supported efforts to establish monitored consumption points. State law regulates recreational pot shops that sell drugs contrary to the crack house law.
“Seattle and Washington State continue to face the serious public health crisis from overdose deaths, which increased in 2020, and should push ahead with the opening of a monitored consumption room as soon as possible,” said Mark Cooke, political director for the ACLU in Washington, in a statement emailed. “We hope that Biden’s new administration will allow state and local governments to implement these guidelines without fear of federal enforcement.”
Ronda Goldfein, vice president of the safehouse board of directors and executive director of the AIDS Law Project in Pennsylvania, said the organization is still weighing its legal options.
“We remain convinced that the law was not designed to force people to be ready while the number of fatal overdoses increases,” said Goldfein.
Jesse Rawlins, a senior Seattle regulated consumer services attorney with the Public Defender Association, said while the Philadelphia ruling constituted a “road bump,” he did not see it hamper local efforts.
“My expectation and hope is that we will move forward incrementally here in Seattle with funding provided by the Seattle City Council,” said Rawlins.