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Date: 01-13-2021

Case Style:

United States of America v. Safehouse

Case Number: 20-1422

Judge: Bibas

Court: United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on appeal from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia County)

Plaintiff's Attorney: United States District Attorney’s Office, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Defendant's Attorney:

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Description: Though the opioid crisis may call for innovativesolutions, local innovationsmay not break federal law. Drug users die every day of overdoses. So Safehouse, a nonprofit, wants to open America’s first safe-injection site in Philadelphia.It fa-vors a public-health response to drug addiction,with medical staff trainedto observe drug use,counteract overdoses, and of-fer treatment.Its motives are admirable.But Congress has made it a crime to open a property to others to use drugs. 21 U.S.C. §856. And that is what Safehouse will do.Because Safehouseknows and intends that its visitors will come with a significant purpose of doing drugs, its safe-injectionsite will break the law. Although Congress passed §856 to shut downcrack houses, its words reach well beyond them.Safehouse’sbenevolent motive makes no difference. And even though this drug use will happen locally and Safehouse willwelcome visitorsfor free, itssafe-injection sitefalls within Congress’s power to baninterstate commerce in drugs.Safehouseadmirably seeks to save lives. And many Amer-icans think thatfederal drug laws shouldmove away from law enforcement toward harmreduction. But courts are not arbiters of policy. We must apply the laws as written. If the laws are unwise, Safehouse and its supporters can lobby Congress to
11carve out an exception. Because wecannotdo that, we will re-verse and remand.I.BACKGROUNDA.The federal drug lawsDrug addictionposesgravesocial problems. The opioid cri-sis has made things worse: more than a hundred Americans die every day of an overdose. Dep’t of Health & Human Servs., Office of the Surgeon General, Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Spotlight on Opioids1 (2018). People of good willdisagree about how to tackle these enormous prob-lems. Lawmakers and prosecutors have traditionally used criminal prosecution to try to stem the flow, targeting the sup-ply and hoping to curb demand.Others emphasize getting users into rehab.Harm-reduction proponents favor treating drug us-ers without requiring them to abstain first.Still others favordecriminalizing or evenlegalizing drugs. There is no consen-sus and no easy answer.But our focus is on what Congress has done, not what it should do. Congresshas long recognized that illegal drugs “substantial[ly]” harm “the health and general welfare of the American people.” 21 U.S.C. §801(2). Indeed, half a century ago, Congress tackled this national problem by consolidating scattered drug laws into a single scheme: the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970.Pub. L. 91-513, 84 Stat. 1236(codified as amended at 21 U.S.C. §§801–971); see Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1, 10–12 (2005).To this day, this scheme governs the federal approach to illegal drugs.
12Title II of that law, the Controlled Substances Act, broadly regulates illegal drugs. The Act spells out many crimes. A per-son may not make, distribute, or sell drugs. 21 U.S.C. §841. He may not possess them. §844. Hemay not take partin a drug ring. §848. He may not selldrug paraphernalia. §863. He may not conspire to do any of these banned activities. §846.And he may not own or maintain a “drug-involved premises”:a place for using, sharing, or producing drugs. §856.This last crime—the one at issue—was addedlater.At first, the Act said nothing about people who opened their property for drug activity. Then, the1980ssaw the rise ofcrack houses: apartments or houses (often abandoned)where people got to-gether to buy, sell, use, or even cook drugs.See United States v. Lancaster, 968 F.2d 1250, 1254n.3 (D.C. Cir. 1992). These “very dirty and unkempt” houses blighted their neighborhoods, attracting a stream of unsavory characters at all hours. Id.But it was hard to shutcrack houses down. To go after owners, po-lice and prosecutorstried to cobble together conspiracy and distribution charges.See, e.g., United States v. Jefferson, 714 F.2d 689, 691–92 (7th Cir. 1983), vacatedon other grounds, 474 U.S. 806(1985).But no law targeted the owner or main-tainer of the premises.To plug this gap, Congress added a new crime: 21 U.S.C. §856. Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, Pub. L. No. 99-570, §1841, 100 Stat. 3207, 3207–52.Thislawbanned runninga place forthe purpose ofmanufacturing, selling, or usingdrugs.Congress later extended thiscrime to reach even temporary drug premises and retitled it from “Establishment of manufac-turing operations” to “Maintaining drug-involved premises.”

Outcome: The opioid crisis is a grave problem that calls for creative solutions. Safehouse wants to experiment with one. Its goal, saving lives, is laudable. But it is not our jobto opine onwhether its experimentis wise. The statute forbidsopening and maintaining anyplacefor visitors to come use drugs.Its wordsare not limited to crack houses.Congress has chosenone ra-tional approach to reducing drug use and trafficking: a flatban. We cannot rewrite the statute. Only Congress can. So we will reverse and remand for the District Court to consider the RFRA counterclaim.

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