US attorney in Philadelphia asks judge to block safe injection site

Photos of young people lost to the opioid crisis are perched outside the federal courthouse as a judge Monday decides if Philadelphia can become the first U.S. city to open a supervised injection site.

U.S. Attorney WIlliam McSwain opposes the plan. The appointee of President Trump says it violates federal drug laws.

Safehouse supporters include three prominent Democrats in the city, Mayor Jim Kenney, District Attorney Larry Krasner and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.

Safehouse founders believe they can reduce overdose deaths by having people use drugs under medical supervision at a site where they can also be offered treatment.

Local organizations, including Philadelphia FIGHT and Prevention Point Philadelphia showed support for the proposed Safehouse site outside the Market Street courthouse Monday.

Monday kicks off two days of evidentiary hearings to consider Safehouse’s proposal to operate the site.

U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh Jr. is weighing McSwain's motion to block the site from opening in the city's drug-ravaged Kensington neighborhood. The hearing is expected to last through Tuesday.

Seven states and more than 60 prosecutors and other law enforcement officials are opposing efforts by Philadelphia's top federal prosecutor to block the proposed site from opening.

State and local prosecutors and police officials from New York to Texas to California, as well as several former Justice Department officials, argued in a brief that Safehouse's proposed injection site would prevent overdose deaths and help reduce the burden on the criminal justice system.

Attorneys general in Colorado, Delaware, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Virginia and the District of Columbia made similar arguments.

"Safehouse's proposed intervention - the operation of a safe injection site - is a critical measure designed to save lives," they wrote. "As laboratories of experimentation and the primary regulators of public health, states should be free to adopt cutting-edge medical interventions."

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, a Democrat, and other city officials announced last year they supported Safehouse's plan to open locations where people can shoot up under the supervision of a doctor or nurse who can administer an overdose antidote if necessary. Philadelphia has the highest opioid death rate of any large U.S. city.

U.S. Attorney William McSwain, an appointee of President Donald Trump, sued Safehouse in February, arguing it's seeking to break the law and normalize the use of deadly drugs like heroin and fentanyl. The suit argues the federal Controlled Substances Act makes it illegal to operate any site "for the purpose of unlawfully using a controlled substance."

In their brief, the state and local prosecutors argued that McSwain's office is misinterpreting the law. They said the Controlled Substances Act "cannot fairly be construed to prohibit operation of a facility specifically designed to address the most acute aspects of this national public health emergency."

The prosecutors also argued that an aggressive approach to enforcement alienates communities, overburdens the criminal justice system and increases overdeath deaths.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.