South Philadelphia residents are outraged that a nonprofit called Safehouse had “ambushed” them by announcing, with virtually no warning, that it would open a supervised drug-injection site in their neighborhood this week.

One mother, concerned about walking her 6- and 10-year-old children past the injection site every day, called former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, chairman of Safehouse, and Ronda Goldfein, its vice president, “sneaks.”

>>> Update: Safehouse officials drop plans to open the drug-injection site in the face of neighborhood opposition, and the idea now is in limbo.

Local council members said they were shocked and outraged that the facility would be placed in their neighborhoods. Councilman Kenyatta Johnson said the facility flew under the City Council’s radar because the area already was zoned for a medical facility.

Johnson said the location was unacceptable because it would share a space with two day care centers and a senior center and is less than 500 feet from a school

The site would be a place where drug users can inject themselves with their drug of choice under the supervision of a doctor or a nurse who can, if necessary, administer an overdose antidote. Safehouse says its facility also would provide recovery counseling, education, and referrals to social services.

This would be the first such injection site in the United States, but reporters from ABC Action News 6 toured similar facilities in Canada. They found that, although clean on the inside, the sites attract significant drug use and sales outside both during and after operating hours. They saw assaults and other crimes outside the facilities.

South Philadelphia’s injection site was made possible when U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh gave Safehouse the green light Feb. 25 to open.

The federal government had tried to stop the injection site by suing under a provision of the Controlled Substances Act commonly called the “crack house statute.”

This statute makes it unlawful to “knowingly open, lease, rent, use or maintain any place, whether permanently or temporarily, for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using any controlled substance.” It also makes it unlawful to “manage or control” any such place and intentionally make it available for others for the purpose of using illegal drugs.

The plain language of that statute should have given the federal government an easy victory. Safehouse acknowledges it is providing a place for drug users to use drugs.

McHugh didn’t see it that way.  He explained: “Safehouse knows and intends that some drug use will occur on its property, but it does not necessarily follow that the organization will knowingly and intentionally make the place available for the purpose of unlawful drug activity.”

Perhaps sensing his explanation made no sense, McHugh tried to clarify by explaining that although Safehouse intends people to use drugs at its injection site, the real purpose is “reducing the harm of drug use, administering medical care, encouraging drug treatment, and connecting people with social services.”

That’s like saying that the purpose of a park isn’t to provide a place to have picnics and play, but to reduce the harm of having picnics and playing in the street.


The federal government is appealing the decision.

Meanwhile, supporters of supervised drug-injection sites are trying to open similar facilities in California, Washington, Colorado, Vermont, New York, Maryland, and other states. San Francisco and New York City already have plans to open injection sites within the year.

Injection sites may go unnoticed in cities where needles, drug sales, and drug use are already rampant and on full display on the streets. But in better-run cities, where parents don’t regularly have to walk their children past needles, strung-out drug users, and human feces, these injection sites will be an unwelcome shock.

Parents and city council members should remain vigilant so they aren’t ambushed.