PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Federal officials have issued a new threat as a number of American cities including Philadelphia are trying to open safe injection sites.
The federal government has declared safe injection sites illegal, which has prompted an immediate backlash from Philadelphia citizens.
In an op-ed piece titled "Fight Drug Abuse, Don't Subsidize It", Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said the Justice Department would take "swift and aggressive action" against cities noting that "safe injection sites violate federal law and are therefore subject to legal action".
Protestors at City Hall want the city council to support and fund overdose prevention sites. The overdose prevention sites would allow people to use heroin legally under the supervision of healthcare workers.
The demonstrations are an effort to reduce drug deaths and get people into treatment.
"There's a huge problem in Philadelphia. 1,217 people died of overdoses in 2017," explained Sterling Johnson, a member of Act Up. The latest numbers from the Philadelphia Department of Health released in April confirmed that number of overdose-related deaths.
That same report asserted that fatal drug overdoses rose 34-percent.
Other protestors pointed out related debris and other issues as reasons that city council needs to take action.
"There's needles all over the ground, people ODing every day and they need to find a better way to save people," said protestor, Sandra Collett.
While these protestors are unhappy with inaction from the council, the Philadelphia Department of Health has been advocating for safe injections sites. Officials from the health department are now pushing back from the new threats.
"Proponents of injection sites say they make drug use safer, but they actually create serious public safety risks," argued Rosenstein in his New York Times opinion piece.
In February, the District Attorney's office announced they would not be prosecuting those that used the safe injection sites. At the time, he cited backlash to any arrests or prosecutions as the reason for the decision.
"Syringe exchange programs operate in the legal gray zone and have done so for years," explains Dr. Tom Farley, commissioner of the city's Department of Health.
The health commissioner, referring to programs that were used to fight AIDS, says for addiction that evidence shows overdose prevention sites can save lives. Evidence also suggests that prevention sites don't promote drug use and can even reduce neighborhood disorder.
"The federal government should focus its enforcement on the pill mills and illegal drug traffickers who supply the poison that is killing our residents. Not on preventing public health officials from acting to keep Philadelphians from dying. Instead of threatening cities and states, they should bring positive solutions to the table that will save lives," said the health department in response to Rosenstein.
A recent survey found that 94-percent of participants had used heroin in the last three months and explored the demographics largely affected by recent drug use. In that same issue, officials recommend things that can be done by health care providers and what they intend to do within Philadelphia for citizens.
The city is continuing to look for an operator and funding.
They're anticipating the process will take about a year to get things in place.
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