First Overdose Prevention Site in the U.S. Delays Opening In Philadelphia

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By Keya Vakil

February 26, 2020

On Tuesday, a judge ruled that the proposed facility does not violate federal law. Research shows these controversial sites have been found to reduce overdose deaths and increase access to health services.

Update (Feb. 28): Safehouse announced Thursday it would delay the opening of its overdose prevention site in South Philadelphia after facing significant community backlash. Safehouse Vice President Ronda Goldfein said her group wanted to give community members the chance to have “meaningful conversation” about the proposed facility. The owner of Constitution Health Plaza, where the facility was to be housed, also canceled Safehouse’s lease. Goldfein said Safehouse plans to regroup and figure out next steps in the coming days.

The nation’s first safe injection site will open next week in Philadelphia, the facility’s operators announced on Tuesday. Their announcement came just hours after a federal judge issued a final ruling that the proposed site would not violate federal law. 

Safehouse, the nonprofit behind the facility, will open the site at Constitution Health Plaza, 1930 S. Broad St. near Passyunk Avenue, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on Tuesday.

Safe injection sites, also known as overdose prevention sites, are medical facilities that prioritize harm reduction and allow people struggling with addiction to use drugs under the supervision of trained staff, access treatment, and be revived if they overdose.

These sites have long been controversial, but have gained momentum as the opioid epidemic has ravaged the United States. That epidemic has been particularly devastating in Philadelphia, where there were 1,217 overdose deaths in 2017. That was the highest rate of overdose deaths of any American city or county with at least 1 million residents, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That number dipped to 1,116 deaths in 2018, but the problem persists and Safehouse co-founder Rhonda Goldfein spoke about the necessity of an overdose prevention site during a press conference on Wednesday.

“Philadelphia, like the nation, is in an overdose crisis. We have the highest death rate of any big city in America; three times that of Chicago, which is number two; and five times that of New York, which is number three. And our numbers continue to rise. The 2019 death rate is expected to surpass 2018.” Goldfein said. “With numbers like these, we are compelled to act.”

While the Safehouse facility would be the first of its kind in the United States, there are approximately 120 sites in 10 countries. The first North American site opened in Vancouver, Canada, in 2003. 

These facilities have been found to reduce overdose deaths, increase access to health services, and lead to a decrease in drug use in the surrounding neighborhoods. One of the most notable successes occurred in Vancouver, where drug overdose deaths declined by 35% in the neighborhood of the city’s first OPS, and 9% in the rest of the city, according to a study conducted by the University of British Columbia.

“This is a time-tested, evidence-supported initiative,” Goldfein said on Wednesday.

Fifty percent of Philadelphia residents support the idea of such a site, while 44% oppose it, according to a 2019 poll funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The facility also has the support of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner.

But there are some vocal opponents, including a South Philadelphia woman who used Wednesday’s press conference to express her anger that the site, which was expected to open in the Kensington neighborhood, would instead be located near where she lives. 

“You blindsided us. You blindsided South Philly,” Leighanne Savloff said. “You don’t sit there and live in that community. You don’t take your kids to the daycare like I do … I care about what my children have to see at 6 and 10 years old that I have to explain hard drug addiction. This is unacceptable. And you were a sneak about it.”

Safehouse plans to hold a community meeting to address residents’ concerns on March 10. The city of Philadelphia also recently issued a public-safety plan laying out how it intends to protect the facility’s clients and neighborhood residents.  

Even though Safehouse will open its doors next week, legal hurdles could still present a problem in the future. Bill McSwain, U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Pennsylvania, announced Tuesday he would appeal the court’s decision. 

“We believe that Safehouse’s proposed activity threatens to institutionalize the scourge of illegal drug use — and all the problems that come with it — in Philadelphia neighborhoods,” McSwain said in a statement. “In light of these concerns, Safehouse should act prudently and not rush to open while the appeal is pending. But if it does rush forward, my office will evaluate all options available under the law.”

McSwain has previously threatened to use “all enforcement tools” available to him to prevent the facility from opening. These efforts could include drug seizures, prison sentences of up to 25 years, and criminal forfeiture proceedings, he said.

Despite McSwain’s appeal, the organization said it plans to not only open its doors next week, but also intends to open a second site in Philadelphia in the coming months.


  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

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