A WCBS Special Report Series, By Marla Diamond

NEW YORK (WCBS 880) – As the number of opioid deaths continues to climb, health care providers, addiction specialists and elected officials are taking a hard look at a highly controversial yet potent weapon against overdose deaths.

Sites where drug users can inject heroin under the supervision of staff that are trained in the use of naloxone have been making headlines in Seattle, San Francisco and here in New York.

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Liz Evans, with the Washington Heights CORNER Project needle exchange, testified before New York State lawmakers at a hearing last spring, explaining how the sites work.

“So people bring their own drugs that they’ve obtained unfortunately illegally still on the black market. They bring them into a place where they can use, and then they make referrals to housing, to methadone, to detox,” she said.

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Evans helped found Canada’s first supervised injection site in Vancouver in 2003 after seeing and hearing about friends overdosing in parks and public bathrooms.

“We’re going to bring all those drug users indoors, and we’re going to create all of the spaces that those folks need to get the help that they need,” she said. “Over a period of about two years, they constructed consumption sites where people could go and use drugs under the supervision of staff who prevented any kind of overdose deaths from happening, gave access to clean supplies, and then they had a whole graduated sort of continuum where some people who are long-term heroin users were actually given a prescription of heroin, which made a massive difference to their stability and life, and some people were given housing, and some people were given access to sort of graduated treatment.

“And the outcomes were phenomenal, particularly from a public viewpoint,” she continued. “Like nobody wants to walk past a park with their kids and worry that they might see somebody injecting.”

Such sites are also legal in many parts of Europe, but not in the United States.

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As it did during the AIDS crisis, New York is taking the lead.

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“There have been numerous scientific studies that found in Vancouver that the presence of a supervised injection facility reduced overdoses in the neighborhood where it was located, increased entry into drug treatment among participants and did not cause increases in crime or public safety,” said Dr. Hillary Kunins, Assistant Commissioner of the Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Use for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

The results of a $100,000 City Council-funded feasibility study on supervised injection sites are expected any day now. But even if they are recommended, getting the sites up and running in New York promises to be a challenge.

“Even those of us who support syringe-exchange worry about what it says when we invite somebody into what in essence is a state sanctioned and maybe even state funded shooting gallery,” said treatment specialist Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, President and CEO of the Family and Children’s Association on Long Island.

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Dr. Reynolds agrees that new approaches are needed to stem the tide of deadly overdoses, but he’s warry of these sites.

“We need to make sure that our steady goal in all of this and we never lose sight of the fact that substance use is inherently dangerous – it carries health risks no matter if you’re doing it under the watchful eye of a medical professional or alone by yourself,” he said.

Advocates will continue to press their case in the new year.

Mark Townsend, President of New York Harm Reduction Educators, says if we are to make a dent in the number of overdose deaths in the U.S., we need to face reality.

“We’re keen for people to have detox and treatment – detox and treatment that works. But the sad truth is – and it’s a truth that we don’t want to be true – is that most detox and treatment fails,” he said. “Addiction, if you’re suffering from the chronic, recurring version of it, is something that is with you for your life. You’re going to struggle for a long time.

“So we just don’t want people to die, we don’t want people to get ill, we don’t want people to go to jail,” he continued. “We just want people to live as best they can dealing with that.”

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As Killer Tide continues, we take a look at New York City’s approach to reducing the stigma associated with drug-assisted treatment.