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The Future of Safe Consumption Sites in Philadelphia

Written by Meaghan Nieman PharmD'22
Published on March 18, 2021

Safe consumption sites have been a popular topic in the news over the past year, which has stirred up different opinions from the surrounding community.  A safe consumption site is a facility where drug users are allowed to enter and use drugs in a safe space. These sites would provide additional services with the goal of getting people into recovery when they are ready. This is not a new concept, since about 120 of these types of sites already exist in countries such as Canada, Germany, and Switzerland. Data from these countries shows decreased overdoses and spread of infectious diseases, but the United States has some legal and ideological barriers in place that have been preventing the start of a safe consumption site. 

Locally, safe consumption sites have been a hot topic. Safehouse is a nonprofit Pennsylvania-based organization that aims to reduce overdoses by offering various services, and they are the organization that has been trying to open a safe consumption site in Philadelphia. Philadelphia has an especially great need for these services, since statistics have shown that overdoses here have outpaced those of other major cities. Safehouse wants this site to include safe consumption and observation rooms with medical staff present to assist patients who might encounter complications. Resources would also be available on site to educate people about treatment, medical services, housing, legal assistance, and more. However, while they have come close to succeeding, they have encountered many barriers that have so far prevented the site from opening.

There has been plenty of community backlash surrounding Safehouse, since many people do not want a site like this in their neighborhood. Many of its critics think that Safehouse would be encouraging drug use and crime, or bringing drug users into the area. However, the site is being planned in Kensington, an area where drug use is already prevalent. Last year, a location was chosen for the site, but the building owner backed out due to pressure from the neighborhood residents. Research has shown that these sites would not cause any increase in crime or drug use, but despite this, the public’s opinion has remained negative and has impeded further steps from being taken.

The case of USA v. Safehouse has been an ongoing proceeding to determine the constitutionality of the site. The case had been slowly progressing until a ruling on January 12th, 2021, which determined that Safehouse would violate federal drug laws, despite their motives. The courts said that while the opioid crisis may call for innovative solutions, these solutions cannot break federal laws, which state that it is illegal to operate a place for people to come and use drugs.

So what are the next steps for Safehouse? Currently, the operation has been paused based on the recent court rulings. However, the Mayor and the health commissioner of Philadelphia are supportive of Safehouse and hopeful that it will continue to move forward. Additionally, recently passed federal stimulus legislation directed the Center for Disease Control and National Institute on Drug Abuse to release a report on the impact of safe consumption sites. Hopefully, providing the public with new information will help change public opinion and get us one step closer to the opening of Safehouse.

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