There is nothing more difficult than to call a mother of a client and tell her that her son is dead because of a heroin overdose. Last year, I had to make two of these phone calls. I will never forget the responses from the mothers.
In west Georgia, the opioid crisis is not discussed as often as it is across the country. But, it is an epidemic that is primarily killing our young people. Many people die from a drug overdose every day. Countless more suffer job loss, broken relationships, negative health consequences from opioid use, and loss of their freedom.
It is causing significant harm to individuals, families, and communities like Carroll, Douglas, Coweta, Haralson, and Heard counties.
Not surprisingly, people disagree on the most effective response to this challenge.
A nonprofit in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was taking a novel approach to the opioid crisis. Safehouse attempted to create America’s first safe-injection facility similar to the ones in Europe. People who arrived at the safe-injection site could have used opioids under supervision to lower the risk of overdose. While at the site, they would be presented with rehabilitation options, could talk with a social worker, and explore housing options. Safehouse would not encourage, store, or handle any illegal drugs.
However, The Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that Safehouse is in violation of federal law.
The federal government asked the Pennsylvania courts to declare that the proposed safe injection site is a violation of federal law. The district court disagreed, holding that the law only prevented a person or business from using the property to manufacture, distribute or use drugs himself on the premises. Since Safehouse would only be monitoring folks who came in to use opioids, the law did not apply.
However, The Third Circuit disagreed. Under the Third Circuit’s reading of the plain text of the law, the Court found that it prohibits anyone from allowing a third party to use their premises for drug use. The fact that the law was originally passed to give law enforcement a tool to go after crack houses, and that Safehouse has good intentions, were not relevant factors.
Judge Stephanos Bibas wrote for the majority, “Safehouse’s benevolent motive makes no difference. You cannot break federal law even for a good reason. Only Congress can clarify that safe-injection sites are legal under federal law.”
But, there was another view held by Judge Jane Roth. In her dissent, she wrote that the majority read into the law something that was not there or in any federal criminal statute. She said that it criminalizes otherwise legal conduct based on the intentions of a third party. The only reason it would be illegal to administer life-saving drugs to someone who is overdosing is that they arrived at the facility to use drugs. Judge Roth noted that the federal government agreed that Safehouse could provide the same exact service it is proposing at its safe injection site if it only did so outdoors. Because Safehouse is providing several services and is not just a safe injection site, it would not be clear what a person walking into Safehouse would be there to do.
Safehouse may appeal or attempt to modify its plans for a safe injection site. For now, however, the nation’s first safe injection site must be put on hold.
As Judge Bibas mentioned, if there are enough votes in Congress, the best solution would be for Congress to just modify the law to allow for such sites.
But, this is a controversial issue. There is the argument that such facilities encourage more drug use by providing a place to “safely” use drugs.
On the other hand, people are going to use drugs if they choose to. Places like Safehouse can save many lives who would otherwise become victims of the opioid crisis.
While it is uncertain which strategy the courts and Congress will adopt, if any, it is certain that people are dying every day; primarily from heroin and/or fentanyl. The time has come to take the opioid crisis seriously.
How do you think we should meet this challenge?
Jason W. Swindle Sr. is a syndicated legal/political writer and a criminal defense attorney. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.