Plans for first US 'safe injection site' derailed again

  • Published
A woman protesting safe injection sites in PhiladelphiaImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The latest plans to open a safe injection site in the US have been derailed again

Plans to open the first "safe drug injection site" in the US have been scrapped after widespread opposition in Philadelphia.

The proposed centre, where people with addictions could receive medical help to inject drugs, was due to open next week.

However, Safehouse, the charity behind the proposed safe injection facility (SIF), withdrew the plan on Thursday.

The backlash it faced laid bare the controversy over SIFs in the US.

A protest was planned for Sunday in South Philadelphia and an online petition to stop the site from being built gathered over 5,800 signatures within 12 hours.

The outpouring of community anger prompted the charity to postpone the opening of the SIF days after winning a two-year court battle for the right to operate.

"We're going to take a pause, even though we are legally entitled to open," Ronda Goldfein, the charity's vice president said. The group said it would seek to have "meaningful conversations" with the community before going forward.

Meanwhile, the US attorney for Pennsylvania's Eastern District has said he will appeal against the ruling that cleared Safehouse to open the SIF.

What is a safe injection facility?

The battle is latest hurdle to opening a safe injection facility in the US.

Such places, sometimes called "fixing rooms", have existed in Europe since the 1970s and were pioneered in London as early as in the 1960s.

Advocates say that by providing places with medical help for people with addictions to inject, more overdose deaths can be prevented and more people who need help can be reached.

Media caption,

Vancouver's unusual approach offers opioid users injection sites, antidotes and even heroin on prescription.

However, they are controversial, especially in the US, where attempts to open a SIF have repeatedly failed amid legal and local concern.

A site that was to have opened in Seattle, Washington in 2018 was stopped by a lawsuit.

Over half a dozen states have put forward bills supporting SIFs, but have seen efforts similarly stalled.

What happened in Philadelphia?

On Tuesday, a federal judge ruled that Safehouse's plans to open a SIF on South Broad Street in South Philadelphia - a neighbourhood at the centre of an addiction crisis in the city - was legal, prompting the charity to announce plans to open next week.

The swift decision angered residents.

Dino Cavaliere, a local estate agent, told BBC: "This isn't right, not only for the community, but for the addict."

The neighbourhood near the SIF could become a place where dealers easily target people with addiction on their way to the site, Mr Cavaliere, 55, said. Addicts might also encounter children.

"This is personal to me," he said. "My son passed away from addiction, 22 years old."

An online petition against the SIF started by Mr Cavaliere drew 5,800 supporters in half a day.

About 100 SIFs are currently in operation worldwide, mostly in Europe, Canada in Australia. Studies largely found them to be effective at reducing overdose fatalities.

However, advocates have not been able to assuage opponents' concerns that SIFs increase drug use.

The idea of SIFs is "all just theory," said Mr Cavaliere.

"People don't understand the mindset of the addicted person," he said. "If you're really concerned, then make a rehab centre."