United States v. Safehouse, No. 20-1422 (3d Cir. 2021)Annotate this Case
Under the Controlled Substances Act, a person may not make, distribute, or sell drugs, 21 U.S.C. 841, and may not own or maintain a “drug-involved premises,” for using, sharing, or producing drugs (section 856). Section 856 was added in 1986 in response to the proliferation of crack houses and was extended to reach even temporary drug premises. Safehouse wants to try a new approach to combat the opioid crisis by opening a safe-injection site that would offer drug treatment and counseling, refer people to social services, distribute overdose-reversal kits, and exchange used syringes for clean ones, with a consumption room where users could inject themselves with illegal drugs, including heroin and fentanyl, that the user brings in from outside. The user would not be allowed to share or trade drugs on the premises. Staffers would watch users for signs of overdose and intervene with medical care as needed. Safehouse hopes to prevent diseases, counteract drug overdoses, and encourage drug treatment.
The district court held that section 856(a)(2) does not apply to Safehouse’s proposed consumption room, declining to reach Safehouse’s Commerce Clause or Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 42 U.S.C. 2000bb–2000bb-3, defenses. The Third Circuit reversed. Safehouse’s benevolent motive makes no difference; its safe-injection site falls within Congress’s power to ban interstate commerce in drugs. Courts are not arbiters of policy but must apply the laws as written.
The court issued a subsequent related opinion or order on March 26, 2021.