Federal Court Says Oft-Cited Federal Law Doesn’t Apply to SIFs

A U.S. District Court judge in Pennsylvania last week ruled that a federal law passed in 1986 to shut down “crack houses” does not apply to those seeking to operate safe injection facilities (SIFs), also known as safe consumption sites. The ruling is important because opponents of proposed legislation in Massachusetts to create the consumption facilities have argued that the federal law precludes the state from moving forward on the issue. In fact, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling wrote a February 2019 op-ed in the Boston Globe saying, in effect, don’t even think of operating a SIF because he’d shut it down.
Boiled down to its basic elements, the legal issue turned on language in the 1986 Controlled Substance Act that makes it unlawful for any person to “manage or control any place” where controlled substances are used. Judge Gerald Austin McHugh ruled that if you manage or control a crack house, then you are violating the law, as Congress intended. But the 1986 law does not apply to safe injection facilities – locations where people can inject illicit drugs under the supervision of trained staff – because, he wrote, “Safe injection sites were not considered by Congress and could not have been, because their use as a possible harm reduction strategy among opioid users had not yet entered public discourse.”
What happens next is unclear. Most expect the decision to be appealed. And the proposed SIF facility in Philadelphia that was at the center of the U.S. District Court case still faces local hurdles before getting licensed, located, and opened. And the day after the ruling, U.S. Attorney Lelling doubled down on his February stance, saying in a press release last Thursday that his office “respectfully disagrees” with the district court judge and that “efforts to open injection facilities, including here in Massachusetts, will be met with federal enforcement.”