Unsafe & Unsound: The Future of Supervised Injection Sites After United States v. Safehouse

By Chloe Rigogne

In the past few years, the United States has experienced a dramatic increase in drug overdose deaths due to factors such as a growing prevalence of synthetic opioids like fentanyl and the strains brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to the overdose crisis, states and municipalities have started considering once-taboo harm reduction practices, including the implementation of supervised injection sites that facilitate individuals’ use of drugs under the care and supervision of medical professionals. However, supervised injection sites may run afoul of 21 U.S.C. § 856—often referred to as the “crack house” statute—a law introduced in the 1980s as a response to fears about crack cocaine. After years of uncertainty about how courts would interpret the statute if faced with such a supervised injection site case, in 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit became the first circuit court to rule on a challenge to a supervised injection site, ultimately holding that a Philadelphia site—the first in the United States—violates the crack house statute.

This Note examines the competing interpretations of 21 U.S.C. § 856(a) in United States v. Safehouse—the first case to decide whether supervised injection sites violate the crack house statute. This Note argues that the text of the statute is ambiguous and suggests that the proper interpretation requires looking beyond the text. Using extratextual aids, this Note concludes by arguing that the best reading of the statute prohibits the expansion of its reach to cover supervised injection sites.