A year after winning a major court battle against the opening of so-called safe injection site—safe havens for people to use heroin and other narcotics with protections against fatal overdoses—the Justice Department is signaling it might be open to allowing them. In response to questions from the AP, the Justice Department said it is "evaluating such facilities and talking to regulators about "appropriate guardrails." The position is a drastic change from its stance in the Trump administration, when prosecutors fought vigorously against a plan to open a safe consumption site in Philadelphia.
The Justice Department won a lawsuit last year, when a federal appeals court in Pennsylvania ruled that opening such a facility would violate a 1980s-era drug law, aimed at "crackhouses," that bans operating a place for taking illegal drugs. The Supreme Court declined in October to take the case. About six weeks later, the first officially authorized safe injection sites opened in New York City in November. The two facilities—which the city calls "overdose prevention centers"—provide a monitored place for drug users to partake, with staffers and supplies on hand to reverse overdoses. Such sites exist in Canada, Australia, and Europe and have been discussed for years in New York and some other US cities and states. A few unofficial facilities have operated for some time.
Advocates have hailed them as a way to curb the scourge of overdose deaths. Drawing from the latest available death certificate data, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses from May 2020 to April 2021. Critics, however, argue that safe injection sites encourage illegal drug use and burden neighborhoods. For months, the Justice Department, under Attorney General Merrick Garland, had refused to take a public stance on safe consumption sites. Officials now say they are weighing their use. In December, the National Institutes of Health issued a call for harm reduction research that mentioned safe consumption sites, among other approaches.
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