Philadelphia's Safehouse could become the nation's first supervised injection site. But legal battles lie ahead.

Justice Department Challenges Legality of Supervised Injection Sites

Prosecutors in Pennsylvania, alongside the U.S. Department of Justice, filed a lawsuit on Wednesday aimed at blocking the opening of what would become the country’s first supervised injection site.

The facility, which would be overseen by Philadelphia nonprofit Safehouse, would provide a hygienic space for people with substance use disorders or addiction to inject drugs under medical supervision. While Safehouse asserts that its services will help prevent overdoses and provide drug users with counseling and access to medication-assisted treatment, the lawsuit claims such a site — despite its good intentions — should be considered illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

“This is in-your-face illegal activity using some of the most deadly, dangerous drugs that are on the streets,” William McSwain, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, told the local public media outlet WHYY. “We have a responsibility to step in.”

Supervised injection sites do not provide or distribute drugs to their clients, but the law still prohibits managing a location where controlled substances including heroin, cocaine, and fentanyl can be used.

Representatives for Safehouse counter that that such an interpretation of the law should not apply in their case. “We don’t think it was intended to prevent activities such as this,” Ronda Goldfein, the group’s vice president and lawyer, told WHYY, “and perhaps it will take a court’s ruling to move the issue forward.”

That ruling could either pave the way for or halt development of supervised injection facilities in other cities. Whatever the decision, all parties agree that better solutions to the drug crisis are needed. Just last year, Philadelphia logged an estimated 1,100 overdose deaths — giving it the highest rate of any major U.S. city. The country as a whole saw 70,000 overdose deaths in 2017.

While research on the efficacy of supervised injection sites is limited, the evidence available from facilities in Europe, Canada, and Australia suggests they do contribute to harm reduction.

Also in the news:

• As a measles outbreak continues to ripple through Clark County, Washington, demand for the measles vaccine has also surged. The county just north of Portland, Oregon declared a public health emergency on January 18th in response to more than 50 confirmed and 11 suspected cases of the measles being tallied since the first of the year. The majority of the cases occurred in children under the age of 18 who were not vaccinated. More reported measles cases are anticipated because the virus is highly contagious. But the outbreak may be mitigated by the recent explosion in orders for the measles vaccine, mostly by parents who had previously refused to inoculate their children. Washington state health department records show that orders for two types of measles vaccines in Clark County went up nearly 500 percent compared to the previous year. “During an outbreak is when you see an influx of patients who would otherwise be vaccine-hesitant,” Virginia Ramos, an infection control nurse with the Sea Mar Community Health Center in Clark County, told Kaiser Health News. “We’re just happy that we’re prepared and that there is vaccine available.” (Kaiser Health News)

• The movie and television streaming service Netflix faced harsh criticism this week in response to news that it would providing a platform to pseudoscience peddler and actress Gwyneth Paltrow. Through her “wellness” company Goop, Paltrow has marketed everything from jade eggs designed to be placed in the vagina to “increase sexual energy” to wearable healing stickers said to “rebalance the energy frequency in our bodies.” And while she’s been made to pay for some of her erroneous claims, Paltrow’s show — which will launch this fall — will be made available to Netflix’s 130 million subscribers around the world. While the series will reportedly be produced in consultation with health professionals, Goop’s track record for scientific inaccuracy doesn’t bode well. In 2017, a deal for a print magazine with Condé Nast dissolved after Paltrow learned that every issue would have to undergo fact-checking. In a separate deal, Paltrow will also be teaming up with Delta Airlines to provide exclusive in-flight podcasts. (Vox)

• Unbeknownst to its more than one million customers, the private genetic testing company Family Tree DNA quietly forged a partnership with the FBI in 2018. A change in its terms of service, implemented in December, grants law enforcement access to its database to identify suspects of “a violent crime” and victims of unsolved homicides and sexual assaults. In an apology email to customers, which was obtained by The New York Times, the company’s president Bennett Greenspan wrote: “We’ve received an incredible amount of support from those of you who believe this is an opportunity for honest, law-abiding citizens to help catch bad guys and bring closure to devastated families.” Greenspan was not apologizing for the agreement, but rather for not disclosing the company’s relationship with the government agency sooner. Seemingly blind to the backlash the news received from both customers and privacy advocates, who note that the close relatives of users who submit their DNA are also unwittingly registered, the company issued a statement doubling down on their decision: “Without realizing it [Family Tree DNA founder and CEO Bennett Greenspan] had inadvertently created a platform that, nearly two decades later, would help law enforcement agencies solve violent crimes faster than ever.” (BuzzFeed News)

• Scientists this week reported tantalizing new evidence that gut bacteria — the microorganisms that naturally inhabit the human digestive tract — may play a role in a person’s mood. In a paper published in Nature Microbiology, a team of scientists discovered that two types of such bacteria are missing from the guts of people diagnosed with depression. The study surveyed the gut microbiome of more than 1,000 Belgians, of whom some 176 were identified as depressed. That group consistently lacked the two strains of bacteria found in those reporting a high quality of life. Researchers noted that the human research follows on studies in mice that also indicated a gut bacteria-behavior connection. But they cautioned that the information is preliminary and still not well understood; whether the link is causal has not yet been established. Still, the work “really pushes the field” in that direction, acknowledged John Cryan, a neuroscientist at University College Cork in Ireland, who has been studying the connection. (Science)

• The prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) was forced this week to retract a press release and withdraw the planned issuing of its annual Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award after backlash from critics both inside and outside the organization. On Monday, AAAS issued an announcement that the 2019 award, which honors “scientists and engineers, or their organizations, whose exemplary actions have demonstrated scientific freedom and responsibility in challenging circumstances,” would go to two Sri Lankan researchers who had, according to AAAS, uncovered a connection between high rates of kidney disease in that country and the controversial — and widely used — agricultural chemical glyphosate. The headline on the now-disappeared AAAS press release (preserved at the Web Archive here) spoke of “lethal herbicides” and, in a photo caption, “a deadly herbicide called glyphosate.” The problem, of course, is that while the safety of glyphosate is a matter of ongoing study and heated public debate, such strident characterizations of the chemical ventured far beyond of any known evidence, and indeed, well beyond the work of the two Sri Lankan researchers. The outcry from many in the scientific community was swift, and after deleting the press release, AAAS said on its Twitter feed that it was “taking steps to reassess the 2019 Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility.” (Various sources)

• And finally: In an effort to protect the beleaguered Florida Barrier Reef, Key West officials have voted to ban the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. The ban will go into effect January 1, 2021, and comes months after a similar measure was passed by Hawaii. The vote followed a vigorous debate that pit concerns of environmental protection against public health. Critics, including dermatologists and industry lobbyists, say the ban will discourage sunscreen use and lead to higher rates of cancer. They argue that the biggest threats to the reef, which has lost more than 90 percent of its coral cover in some areas, are not sunscreens but problems like global warming, overfishing, and agricultural runoff. But scientists say there’s extensive evidence that oxybenzone and octinoxate are toxic to coral, and the National Park Service estimates that between 4,000 and 6,000 tons of sunscreen wash off into reef areas every year. “At the very least, it’s an incremental stressor in a system that’s already stressed beyond its capacity,” marine biologist Rivah Winter told the Miami Herald. Key West’s ban will still allow the sale of zinc- and titanium-based sunscreens, which are not thought to be harmful to corals. (The Miami Herald)