PHILADELPHIA — U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told a Philadelphia news site the federal government will take swift and aggressive legal action if Philadelphia and other cities open supervised injection sites for illegal drug users.
Rosenstein made the comments in a Wednesday interview with WHYY . U.S. Department of Justice officials had previously declined to comment on the sites that Philadelphia and about a dozen other jurisdictions are considering in response to the opioid crisis, other than to say they would be illegal.
Philadelphia officials announced in January they want to open safe havens where people can inject drugs, an effort to combat skyrocketing opioid overdoses in the city.
Philadelphia has the highest opioid death rate of any large U.S. city. More than 1,200 people fatally overdosed in the city in 2017, one-third more than in 2016.
City leaders should expect legal action as soon as the city opens a facility, Rosenstein said.
"I'm not aware of any valid basis for the argument that you can engage in criminal activity as long as you do it in the presence of someone with a medical license," he said.
Rosenstein said he "wouldn't speculate" on what the enforcement would look like or who might be arrested, but said federal officials have their eyes on Philadelphia.
City officials said Rosenstein's declaration won't deter them from forging ahead with the plans.
Public Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley told the news site he was disappointed with the Justice Department's response, but added there was similar backlash to early needle-exchange programs meant to curb the AIDS epidemic. Now, such exchanges are accepted.
"Nobody likes the idea of watching someone who is addicted just inject drugs. We want to get all of those people into treatment, but we all have to recognize that, despite all of our efforts, many people are not going to drug treatment," he said. "In a crisis like this, with as many people dying as we have, it's worth a try."
A handful of cities including New York, San Francisco and Seattle are seeking to open safe injection sites, and others already operate overseas and in Canada. At least one unauthorized safe injection site has been operating under the radar somewhere in the U.S. since 2014.