The ruling was a victory for the nonprofit Safehouse, which hopes to open a facility where people with addictions could use drugs under medical supervision so help would be instantly on hand in the event of an overdose, an approach known as harm reduction.
"This is the first time a federal court has been asked the question of whether this activity, as proposed, is unlawful, and the court has said it is not unlawful activity," said Ronda Goldfein, Safehouse's vice president.
The Justice Department, however, said the fight is not over.
“The Department is disappointed in the Court’s ruling and will take all available steps to pursue further judicial review," Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen said in an emailed statement. "Any attempt to open illicit drug injection sites in other jurisdictions while this case is pending will continue to be met with immediate action by the Department.”
Judge Gerald McHugh ruled in a lawsuit brought by U.S. Attorney William McSwain, which sought to bar Safehouse from opening a safe injection site, arguing that a portion of federal law — called the "crack house" statute — makes it illegal for any place to operate for the purpose of using illegal drugs.
McHugh says he examined the text of the law and materials surrounding its passage and concluded, "There is no support for the view that Congress meant to criminalize projects such as that proposed by Safehouse."
"Safe injection sites were not considered by Congress and could not have been, because their use as a possible harm reduction strategy among opioid users had not yet entered public discourse," the judge wrote.
McSwain called the opinion "merely the first step in a much longer legal process that will play out."
"This case is obviously far from over," he said. "We look forward to continuing to litigate it, and we are very confident in our legal position.”
Mayor Jim Kenney praised the ruling.
"I believe overdose prevention sites can save lives, reduce the transmission of infectious disease, help connect individuals suffering with substance use disorder to treatment and other services, and reduce the litter associated with open-air drug use," he said.
The Kenney administration first proposed a safe injection site more than two years ago, when the opioid epidemic was ballooning and overdose deaths reached 1,300, four times the homicide rate.
While the ruling removes a major obstacle to the idea, many hurdles remain, including finding a location.
Goldfein promised a careful process.
"We're not trying to surprise anybody or behave in a stealth-like way and rush out. We recognize these are matters of serious concern for the public," Goldfein said.
Judge McHugh stressed he was not making a policy decision.
"One might criticize the Safehouse model from the standpoint of therapeutic soundness or effectiveness," he wrote, "but...that is not the issue before me."