Legal Tips for Safe Injection Facilities in Philadelphia

Medical professionals and opioid users need to know the dangers


Opioids were involved in more than 600,000 overdose deaths since 2000, with 42,249 in 2016 alone. Over 900 Philadelphians died of an opioid overdose in 2016—three times the number of homicides. Every day, more than 115 people die from opioid overdose, according to the Center for Disease Control. In short, it’s a dire situation.

“Clearly something needs to be done,” says NiaLena Caravasos, a criminal defense attorney in Philadelphia. “It’s myopic and naïve to do nothing but jail people for their addictions. We need to think outside of the box.”

Can Safe Injection Facilities fix the problem?

In Europe and Canada there has been great success with the introduction of Safe Injection Facilities (SIFs). These facilities offer a safe place for people who inject drugs (PWIDs) to inject. They offer clean needles and medical professionals who are trained to administer life-saving drugs to prevent overdoses. While it may seem counter-intuitive that such environments curb the problem, the spaces also provide access to counseling and resources to help PWIDs to seek aid.

“People’s visceral reaction of seeing these SIFs as condoning illegal drug use is short sighted and false,” Caravasos says. “These facilities are a mechanism to have someone conquer their addictions instead of struggling alone on the streets.”

Statistics from the United States National Institute of Health show that these facilities lowered overdoses, brought down public drug use, increased access to proper health care and reduced the transmission of blood-borne illnesses—all without “enhancing drug use or drug trafficking.”

Philadelphia has approved the implementation of SIFs—the first city in the U.S. to do so. The plan is to allow a private company to run and maintain the sites in order for the city to stay away from violating the federal laws. The district attorney has pledged not to prosecute those that are operating these SIFs.

“But just because the local prosecutor isn’t going to prosecute those who run these facilities will not prevent the federal authorities from going after the medical professionals only trying to help.” Caravasos adds.  

What are the laws that control these facilities?

The Controlled Substance Act governs the legality of controlled substances and opioids are illegal unless prescribed or administered by a medical professional. “For these facilities to work, we will need to do more to decriminalize addiction,” Caravasos says. “In Portugal, the opioid crisis was beaten because of a shift in philosophy. They put it on another track. They viewed the problem differently. They saw it as more important to save people’s lives and work to get people healthy again rather than focusing on the importance of putting PWIDs in prison, as we do in this country.”

Medical professionals should be wary of being involved in these facilities so long as opioids remain federally criminal, Caravasos says. “The premise behind these facilities is good and progressive, but a foundation must be laid in decriminalizing an addict’s behavior or an exclusion [made] for health professionals written into law should happen before anyone risks their professional license at an SIF.”

If you’re a medical professional and want to work at an SIF, it might be good to have an experienced criminal defense attorney in case your facility is broken up by law enforcement and you are facing charges. PWIDs face the same risk of a potential raid or simply being picked up outside the facility, and may likewise need the advice of an attorney. 


Medical professionals should be wary of being involved in these facilities so long as opioids remain federally criminal.

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