AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The fall has been full of news about drugs, from communities decriminalizing marijuana to Toronto's mayor admitting he smoked crack cocaine. Meanwhile, Denmark has been quietly trying out a new approach to its own drug-related problems.

Sidsel Overgaard has that story.

MARTIN JENSEN: From hell to heaven.

SIDSEL OVERGAARD, BYLINE: Hell to heaven, that's the way Martin Jensen describes what this year has been like for him. Jensen smokes heroin. He used to do it in public, wherever he could - elevators, stairwells, the train station.

JENSEN: Scandinavian hotels...

OVERGAARD: He hated the idea of being seen by kids or harassed by police.

JENSEN: I don't have that feeling anymore because I can come here and smoke it.

OVERGAARD: Here is one of Copenhagen's two new Drug Consumption Rooms or DCRs, places where adults with addictions can bring illegal drugs and take them legally.

RASMUS CHRISTANSEN: The first time you come, you are making what we call an anonymous registration.

OVERGAARD: Rasmus Christansen is the manager.

CHRISTANSEN: So you are telling me a nickname, you are telling me a year of birth, but it's not like East German border control to get in. We want people to get pretty fast into the rooms, so where we can get drug consumption out of the streets.

OVERGAARD: The room itself is divided into two sections. On one side, smokers stand behind a glass wall, filling their enclosure with haze from improvised pipes. On the other side, a handful of people sit along a stainless steel table, injecting themselves with heroin, cocaine or both. In the middle of it all sits a nurse in street clothes, taking in the scene. Every day, these nurses witness between four and 800 injections; during this first year, 135 people have OD'd.

CHRISTANSEN: And in all the cases, all the situations, our nurses have done the job and nobody has died in the room.

OVERGAARD: Given that two years ago Denmark saw a record high number of overdose deaths, that, says Christansen, is a sign of success. Another is that these hard-to-reach users have made more than a thousand contacts with the broader social system to get help with things like housing and healthcare.

CHRISTANSEN: We are getting to know them. We are building up relations with them. And when we are building up relations, they will also come to us when they have problems.

OVERGAARD: Denmark is not the first place to try DCRs - eight other countries have them, most established over a decade ago. These can be tricky places to gather data, but there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that DCRs can save lives, reduce risky behavior and may even increase the chances of getting people into treatment. And that is leading other cities, including some in the U.S., to give the idea more serious consideration.

And where does the law stand on all this?

KAJ LYKKE MAJLUND: (Through Translator) If you asked me 20 years ago, I would probably have said this will never work.

OVERGAARD: With his handlebar mustache, Deputy Police Inspector Kaj Lykke Majlund could have walked straight out of a Western. But his policing philosophies are decidedly more modern.

MAJLUND: (Through Translator) We used to think police could solve all these problems alone, but that doesn't work. We have to solve this together. And we have to understand that drug users - the severely addicted - they need help. They need treatment, not punishment.

OVERGAARD: To that end, Majlund has established a two-square-mile free zone in this Vesterbro neighborhood where officers don't arrest adults for possession. Dealing is a different story.

Of course, not all Danes support DCRs. Critics, like Conservative People's Party member Tom Behnke, say they condone criminal activity. But even he says the bigger problem is that DCRs give Denmark an excuse not to do more to fix a broken treatment system.

TOM BEHNKE: (Through Translator) I have met people who've struggled for years to get treatment. And it's so hard to get treatment in Denmark that it's a lot easier to live on the streets as a drug-addicted person.

OVERGAARD: Even proponents caution that DCRs are, quote, "not a Danish fairytale" and there remains work to be done. Still, the concept has been deemed enough of a success that other cities, like Aarhus, are jumping on board.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD SINGING)

OVERGAARD: As politicians and advocates gathered here to cut the ribbon on the country's newest DCR just last month, their choice of hymn may have summed it up best.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD SINGING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

OVERGAARD: If there were not anything to fight for, the song went, what would our purpose be?

For NPR news, I'm Sidsel Overgaard in Denmark.

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