A 2-1 ruling today from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals that rejected a proposed supervised injection facility in Philadelphia will not stop Seattle’s plan to provide medical supervision for drug use here, local advocates say.
It does, however, raise questions about the city and county’s next steps to contract for those services.
The U.S. Department of Justice sued Philadelphia nonprofit Safehouse over its plan to open a facility where people could go to inject drugs with clean syringes and medical staff on site, saying that it violated a 1980s federal law intended to shut down crack houses. A majority of the three-judge panel agreed, overturning the decision of a lower court.
While Seattle politicians and advocates have called for local supervised injection sites to prevent overdose deaths since 2015, political challenges and legal threats have tempered progress toward establishing them. Last year, however, Seattle lawmakers allocated money for Public Health – Seattle & King County to pay for these services at existing locations where drug users seek care.
Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, who along with King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg last year signed an amicus brief in support of nonprofit Safehouse’s plan in Philadelphia, called the new ruling “disappointing” but said it doesn’t have a “direct effect” on Seattle.
“I’ll be very interested whether Safehouse chooses to appeal the decision,” Holmes said in a statement.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan was cautious in her assessment of what the ruling meant for the city’s efforts. At a Tuesday afternoon press conference, she noted that the city had received warnings from the Trump administration not to open a supervised injection site and was working with Public Health to see what services could be provided for drug-user health.
“We don’t know exactly what that looks like now and this (ruling) is another wrinkle that we’ll have to deal with,” the mayor said.
“Regardless of today’s ruling, (the Human Services Department) will continue to work with Public Health – Seattle & King County to implement a proposal to expand access to drug treatment and increased services for people experiencing substance use disorders,” a spokesperson for 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 Executive Communications Director Alex Fryer said his office didn’t yet know how the ruling might affect local supervised consumption plans.
The “crack house” statute the case revolves around makes it illegal to open or maintain a facility for using, selling or manufacturing drugs.
“This puts a spotlight back on Congress to clarify that there can be public health exceptions to the ‘crack house’ statute,” Satterberg said in an emailed statement. “They have the ability to legislate it.”
But local laws don’t have to be in lockstep with federal drug laws, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, which has supported supervised consumption site efforts. State law governs recreational pot shops, which, contrary to the crack house statute, sell drugs.
“Seattle and Washington state continue to face the severe public health crisis of overdose deaths, which increased in 2020, and should move forward with opening a supervised consumption space as quickly as possible,” said ACLU of Washington policy director Mark Cooke in an emailed statement. “We hope the incoming Biden administration will allow state and local governments to enact these policies without fear of federal enforcement.”
Ronda Goldfein, vice president of the Safehouse board of directors and the executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, said the organization was still weighing its legal options.
“We remain convinced that the law was not intended to force people to stand by while we see mounting fatal overdoses,” Goldfein said.
Jesse Rawlins, a lead advocate for supervised consumption services in Seattle with the Public Defender Association, said while the ruling represented a “road bump” in Philadelphia, he didn’t see it impeding local efforts.
“My expectation and my hope is that we move forward progressively here in Seattle with funding that’s been made available by Seattle City Council,” Rawlins said.
Correction: The original version of this story misinterpreted a comment from City Attorney Pete Holmes. A split decision among circuit courts, not among the panel, would be more likely to garner Supreme Court review.