PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A federal judge ruled Wednesday that supervised injection sites designed to prevent overdoses do not violate federal drug laws, giving advocates in Philadelphia and perhaps elsewhere a boost in their efforts to open them.

U.S. District Judge Gerald A. McHugh said there’s no evidence that Congress intended 1980s-era drug laws to cover sites where people could inject drugs and have medical help nearby if they need it.

“Safe injection sites were not considered by Congress and
could not have been, because their use as a possible harm reduction
strategy among opioid users had not yet entered public discourse,”
McHugh said in his ruling.

U.S. Attorney William McSwain, an
appointee of Republican President Donald Trump, had gone to court in
Philadelphia to try to block the plan, calling the goal “laudable” but
supporters misguided.

Mayor Jim Kenney, District Attorney Larry
Krasner and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, all Democrats, believe
the program would reduce the city’s 1,100 annual overdose deaths and
help steer users into treatment.

Rendell helped found the
nonprofit group that would run the program, called Safehouse, after the
overdose death of a family friend.

Ronda Goldfein, a Safehouse
vice president, said the group would seek clarity from McHugh in the
next few weeks on whether to move forward with plans to open sites
across the city.

The Justice Department appeared likely to
challenge the decision. Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen said
the department was disappointed and would “take all available steps to
pursue further judicial review.”

“Any attempt to open illicit drug
injection sites in other jurisdictions while this case is pending will
continue to be met with immediate action by the department,” he said in a
statement.

The issue has divided public officials in Philadelphia
and around the nation, although similar sites are in use in Canada and
Europe. Supervised injection sites are also being considered in other
U.S. cities including Seattle, New York, San Francisco and Somerville,
Massachusetts.

Under the Safehouse plan, people struggling with
addiction could bring drugs to the clinic-like setting, use them in a
partitioned bay and get help from nearby medical help if they overdose.
They would also be counseled about treatment and other health services.

“It’s
a better option than having people die in streets and alleyways and
fields. And it will also help the community,” said Debbie Howland of
Drexel Hill, who lost a daughter to an overdose death last year.

She
volunteers several days a week in Philadelphia’s drug-ravaged
Kensington neighborhood, and bemoaned that small children have to walk
past dirty needles and “devastated” users on their way to school.

“With 70,000 people dying a year (nationally), you’ve got to do something,” she said Wednesday.

However,
some neighborhood groups and city council members representing the area
oppose the plan and have vowed to keep fighting it.

Safehouse
lawyers had argued that it wasn’t clearly illegal under the Controlled
Substances Act — which regulates the possession, use and distribution of
certain drugs — to stand nearby with life-saving medical help.

McHugh in his ruling agreed.

“The
ultimate goal of Safehouse’s proposed operation is to reduce drug use,
not facilitate it, and accordingly, (the law) does not prohibit
Safehouse’s proposed conduct,” he wrote.

The decision come as
federal, state and local authorities pursue billions of dollars in legal
damages from pharmaceutical companies that manufactured and marketed
opioid products.

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