(Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday said it had filed a lawsuit seeking to stop a nonprofit in Philadelphia from opening what could become the nation’s first supervised drug-injection site in an effort aimed at addressing opioid abuse.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Philadelphia, follows warnings by the Justice Department under Republican President Donald Trump that cities which seek to open so-called safe injection sites could face legal action.
The lawsuit targets Safehouse, a nonprofit that announced last year it intended to open a facility where drug users under supervision by medically-trained professionals could inject themselves with heroin, fentanyl or other drugs.
According to its website, Safehouse’s facility would provide drug users with syringes. Its staff would observe them as they inject themselves and could provide users overdose treatment and other emergency care.
The lawsuit alleges Safehouse’s facility would violate the Controlled Substances Act by maintaining a place that would facilitate illegal drug use. The lawsuit seeks a court order declaring the planned facility is illegal.
“We all want solutions that save lives, but allowing private citizens to break long-established federal drug laws passed by Congress is not an acceptable path forward,” U.S. Attorney William McSwain in Philadelphia said in a statement.
Ilana Eisenstein, Safehouse’s lawyer, in a statement said the nonprofit was “committed to defending Safehouse’s effort to provide lifesaving care to those at risk of overdose through the creation of safe injection facilities.”
The lawsuit, the first of its kind, comes as other cities throughout the United States are considering opening safe injection sites amid a national opioid abuse epidemic that each year has killed tens thousands of people.
In 2017, 47,600 people died of opioid-related overdoses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While supervised-injection sites have long operated in Europe and Canada, no such facilities exist in the United States. Among the U.S. cities to consider opening them are New York, Denver, San Francisco and Seattle.
Philadelphia city officials are not directly involved with Safehouse, but Mayor Jim Kenney has supported the operation of an entity operating safe injection sites. Its board members include former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat.
But the Justice Department under Trump has opposed the creation of the sites. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein warned in a New York Times op-ed in August that cities could expect “swift and aggressive action” if they open them.
Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Tom Brown