WASHINGTON, D. C. – Attorney General Karl A. Racine today led a coalition of eight states in a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the rights of states to enact public health policies that can prevent opioid overdoses and treat those suffering from opioid use disorder. The amicus brief, filed today in United States v. Safehouse before the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, opposes a Trump administration effort to stop Safehouse, a Pennsylvania nonprofit, from operating a life-saving “safe injection site” that can prevent opioid overdose deaths. With the District now ranking third among states with the highest rate of opioid overdoses, it is crucial to maintain authority to enact public health solutions that can save residents’ lives.
“States are on the front lines of the opioid crisis and must have the latitude to tailor solutions that preserve life in their jurisdictions,” said AG Racine. “The Office of Attorney General for the District of Columbia is supporting Safehouse’s innovative evidence-based approach to reducing the harm caused by the opioid crisis. The federal government should not seek to criminalize public health programs that save lives.”
Safehouse is a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that plans to operate a medically supervised “safe injection site” where high-risk users can consume opioids and receive immediate medical care in the event of an overdose. This medical supervision saves lives because death can occur within minutes of using heroin or fentanyl, a dangerous synthetic opioid—sometimes too quickly for emergency responders to arrive on the scene. It also mitigates the risks associated with public usage and contaminated needles. Safehouse also offers drug treatment options, primary medical care, and wraparound social services that can help treat those suffering from opioid use disorder. Although safe injection sites are new to the United States, over 100 sites operate in 60 different cities in Canada, Australia, and many European nations.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, an estimated 130 Americans die each day from an opioid overdose. Opioid deaths have been on the rise in the United States since 1999, based largely on the proliferation of opioid prescriptions. The death toll now totals over 400,000. In 2017, the District recorded 279 opioid overdose deaths—more than three times the number of opioid deaths in 2014, with over 70 percent of those deaths involving fentanyl or one of its analogues. Now, the District ranks third among states with the highest rate of opioid overdoses, up from 17th just five years ago.
In their brief, the State Attorneys General argue that states have the legal right to enact public health policies that allow medical interventions like safe injection sites because:
- States have a well-established role in enacting public health and safety programs: States are on the front lines of the opioid crisis and have historically enjoyed broad powers regarding healthcare protections for their residents. 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 syringe exchange programs which provide drug users with 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.
- Federal law does not prevent States from enacting innovative public health solutions: The federal government is seeking to prevent the use of safe injection sites, arguing that the use of illegal drugs on their premises violates the Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”). However, the CSA, which includes criminal penalties, was intended to help law enforcement target crack houses and drug use at rave parties—not to prohibit life-saving public health interventions like safe injection sites. Indeed, courts have upheld similar interventions like Good Samaritan Laws which prioritize public health objectives over criminal prosecution.
Joining the District of Columbia in the today’s amicus brief are the State Attorneys General from Colorado, Delaware, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, and Virginia.
The amicus brief in U.S. v. Safehouse is available at: https://oag.dc.gov/sites/default/files/2019-07/Amicus-US-v-Safehouse.pdf
OAG’s Work to Address the Opioid Crisis
This amicus brief is part of a larger effort by OAG to protect District residents from the opioid crisis. In 2018, the D.C. Council passed a permanent version of the Synthetics Abatement and Full Enforcement Drug Control Act (Safe DC) to make it easier to prosecute the suppliers and distributors of dangerous drugs, including the synthetic opioid fentanyl. In June 2019, for misleading patients, doctors, and communities about the danger of opioids in pursuit of massive profits from sales.