STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Philadelphia is looking at a new tool to fight opioid addictions - supervised injection sites. That's where people can safely inject heroin or other opioids under medical supervision. It would be the first such site in the U.S., as Bobby Allyn of member station WHYY reports.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: It's a divisive idea - letting people shoot up with clean needles and their own drugs while under the watch of medical staff. Advocates say this form of harm reduction can be a bridge to treatment. There are 90 such facilities around the world, and Philadelphia might just be uniquely positioned to host the nation's first. Opioids were the main driver in what officials believe were 1,200 drug overdose deaths in Philadelphia last year. That's quadruple the city's murder rate.
LARRY KRASNER: Supervised injection sites are a form of harm reduction. They've been proven to be very important.
ALLYN: That's the city's new left-leaning district attorney Larry Krasner, who was sworn in last week. If a safe injection site opens, he's promised not to prosecute drug crimes there. To backers, that's huge.
KRASNER: The only way to get people to turn their lives around is to keep them alive long enough so they can do that. And we're going to do that.
ALLYN: Sources close to Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney talk about him favoring safe injection sites. But publicly, Kenney says he's still studying the issue. Thirty-nine-year-old electrician Johnny (ph) from Philadelphia suburbs hopes the mayor will soon be outspoken about supporting an injection site.
JOHNNY: I would absolutely go there.
ALLYN: We're withholding Johnny's last name since he uses illegal opioids. He's standing under a bridge in the neighborhood Kensington, the heart of the opioid crisis and the likely location of a safe injection site. On both sides of the trash-strewn road, there are long rows of ragged tents. Visitors like Johnny use the mini-encampment as a private space to do heroin. He says he'd rather use a medically supervised facility.
JOHNNY: People aren't going to be shooting up on your front stoop, you know, or in your back yard, hiding or even here. You know what I mean? They come down here and get high, and they die here, like, under a bridge.
ALLYN: Others would prefer to fight the epidemic with handcuffs. Philadelphia's police commissioner has been skeptical about designating a place for the use of an illegal narcotic. And even if local police can be convinced, the proposal is likely to provoke a standoff with the federal government, which has promised to aggressively crack down on a similar plan in Vermont. Patrick Trainer is a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency's Philadelphia field office.
PATRICK TRAINER: Are we going to do that? And next year - the year following, are we then going to be talking about, OK, well, there're still overdose deaths, so maybe we need to look into government-supplied, you know, drugs?
ALLYN: Yet supporters of safe injection sites say when people consume drugs alone, they're more likely to die of an overdose. Jen Bowles' research backs this up. She's studied the opioid crisis in Kensington at Drexel University.
JEN BOWLES: There's a tremendous fear that says if we create a space in which drug users can more safely consume drugs, that that may somehow be encouraging drug use. But that conflicts with the science that has found that not to be true.
ALLYN: And another study in the journal The Lancet found that overdose deaths around a safe injection site in Canada dropped 35 percent around the facility after it opened. Despite that evidence, the safe injection site is still likely to be a tough sell for Kensington neighbors. Standing along the row of tents, Johnny says he would make this case to those troubled by the idea.
JOHNNY: Someday, their children could be out here using. Wouldn't they want their kids to be in a safe environment if they're not able to beat the disease?
ALLYN: As the safe injection site debate goes on, the city has other initiatives underway - from education campaigns trying to end the stigma around opioid use to making sure overdose-reversing drugs are in the hands of more people.
For NPR News, I'm Bobby Allyn in Philadelphia.
(SOUNDBITEOF JOY WANTS ETERNITY'S "DEATH IS A DOOR THAT OPENS")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.