The nation’s top health official indicated on Wednesday that the Biden administration will not block the establishment safe injection sites where people could use illicit drugs in a medically supervised environment as a means of curtailing the overdose epidemic—but it will ultimately be up to the Justice Department to follow through, with a brief due in a key court case next week.
As the administration rolls out a new plan to address the health crisis—which will involve more modest harm reduction reforms like providing fentanyl testing and syringe access—Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra says safe consumption facilities aren’t off the table.
The comments come at a pivotal time, as the federal government is actively in court facing a legal challenge over the overdose prevention centers, with a pivotal brief due soon. The U.S. Supreme Court recently declined to hear a case about the legality of these harm reduction centers, but advocates hoping to establish such a facility in Philadelphia are still pursuing the case at a lower federal court level, where the administration will have to make its position clear next week.
The Justice Department, rather than HHS, will be answering on behalf of the government in the case. But Becerra’s new comments signal that the administration is aware of—and sympathetic to—arguments in favor of providing people with harm reduction services.
“We are literally trying to give users a lifeline,” Becerra told NPR, adding that the federal agency is not going to intervene in state efforts to create safe injection facilities. “We’re not going to say ‘but you can’t do these other type of supervised consumption programs that you think work or that evidence shows work,’” he said.
“We are willing to go places where our opinions and our tendencies have not allowed us to go [before],” he said. “If you can’t prevent someone from becoming a user, then at least prevent them from harming themselves to the point of death.”
When The Washington Post separately asked Becerra whether the administration would clear the way for supervised consumption facilities, he said that while the ultimate legal decision is outside his “lane,” officials are “looking for every way to do that.”
“We probably will support the efforts of states that are using evidence-based practices and therapies,” he told the newspaper.
It’s not necessarily an endorsement of the progressive harm reduction strategy, which advocates argue could help mitigate overdose deaths while also providing people with substance misuse disorders access to treatment resources.
And an HHS spokesperson …….