AG Racine Leads Coalition of 11 Attorneys General in Fight for States' Power to Enact Public Health Policies That Will Protect Their Residents From Opioid Overdose Deaths

Coalition Urges Supreme Court to Review Third Circuit Ruling Preventing States from Implementing Lifesaving Solutions to the Opioid Epidemic

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Attorney General Karl A. Racine led a coalition of 11 attorneys general in a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Supreme Court to hear a case supporting states’ rights to enact public health policies that can prevent opioid overdose deaths and treat those suffering from opioid use disorder.

In the brief, the coalition of attorneys general asks the Supreme Court to review a ruling by the U.S Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit that prevents Safehouse, a Pennsylvania nonprofit, from operating a lifesaving “safe injection site” that can prevent opioid overdose deaths. This medically supervised site would afford those who consume opioids immediate medical care in the event of an overdose. The Trump administration sued to prevent Safehouse from operating the program.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the opioid crisis, taking the lives of far too many Americans, including District residents who continue to overdose,” said AG Racine. “To reduce the number of needless opioid overdoses, we need creative and aggressive preventive measures—like those offered by Safehouse—which allows individuals suffering with addiction to safely access injection sites that are staffed with appropriate medical, mental health, and other professionals who can also offer recovery treatment and counseling. These approaches have taken root in other countries and have proven effective in reducing opioid deaths.”

Safehouse has planned to operate a medically supervised “safe injection site.” Medical supervision saves lives because death can occur within minutes of using heroin or fentanyl, a dangerous synthetic opioid, often too quickly for emergency responders to arrive on the scene. These sites also reduce the risks associated with public usage and contaminated needles. Safehouse also plans to offer drug treatment options, primary medical care, and wraparound social services that can help treat those suffering from opioid use disorder. There are approximately 120 safe injection sites operating in 10 countries around the world.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 136 Americans die each day from an opioid overdose. Opioid deaths have been on the rise in the United States since 1999. The death toll now totals nearly 500,000. The District is one of the hardest-hit jurisdictions of the opioid crisis, ranking seventh among states with the highest rate of opioid overdose deaths.

AG Racine has previously led multistate coalitions in support of Safehouse in this case. Beginning in July 2019, AG Racine filed a multistate amicus brief in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, supporting Safehouse’s plan to operate a safe injection site. The district court ruled in favor of Safehouse, concluding that the planned site does not violate federal law. In July 2020, AG Racine again supported Safehouse, filing a multistate amicus brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The Court of Appeals reversed, with a strong dissenting opinion.

In their brief, AG Racine and the 10 other attorneys general again support Safehouse and urge the Supreme Court to hear this case because:

  • This is an issue of national importance that requires innovation at the local and state levels: The opioid crisis affects every state in the nation, including the District, which has been disproportionately impacted by the crisis. States have reported startling numbers of overdose deaths and other dire consequences stemming from opioid use disorder. Many states and local governments are considering safe injection sites as one way to prevent overdose deaths and promote public health. The Court’s decision about the future of Safehouse could impact the future of other similar sites.
  • The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the opioid crisis and reinforced the need for more solutions: According to the American Medical Association, every “state has reported a spike or increase in overdose deaths or other problems during the COVID-19 pandemic.” And individuals with substance use disorders are at increased risk of COVID-19 exposure and of severe disease due to COVID-19. Safe injection sites like Safehouse offer users medical care along with life-saving support, including immediate access to sterile injection equipment, opioid reversal agents like Naloxone, and pathways into drug treatment programs.
  • States have a well-established role in enacting public health and safety programs: States are on the front lines battling the opioid crisis and have historically enjoyed broad powers to protect public health. For example, many states have implemented Good Samaritan laws, which encourage victims and bystanders to seek help for those experiencing a drug overdose by offering limited immunity from drug-related charges. States have also implemented needle exchange programs, which provide clean needles to prevent the spread of diseases. It is crucial that states and localities maintain the flexibility to act quickly to adopt public health solutions that address their residents’ needs.

Joining the District of Columbia in this brief are the attorneys general from Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia. 

A copy of the brief is available here.

OAG’s Efforts to Address the Opioid Crisis
This effort is the latest development in OAG’s efforts to address the national opioid crisis. Earlier this year, OAG and a multi-state coalition reached a $573 million settlement with McKinsey & Company for its role in helping opioid manufacturers promote and profit off dangerously addictive painkillers. The District will receive $1.08 million through this settlement for local efforts to address the harms caused by opioids.

In 2018, the DC Council passed a permanent version of the Synthetics Abatement and Full Enforcement Drug Control Act (Safe DC) proposed by AG Racine to make it easier to prosecute the suppliers and distributors of dangerous drugs, including the synthetic opioid fentanyl. In 2019, OAG sued Purdue Pharma and former top executive Richard Sackler for misleading patients, doctors, and communities about the danger of opioids in pursuit of massive profits from sales. OAG recently filed a notice of appeal in Purdue Pharma’s flawed bankruptcy plan, as Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers should not be allowed to walk away with billions in profits made by exacerbating the opioid crisis.