Philadelphia considers opening site for heroin users to shoot up safely

Last Updated Apr 7, 2018 9:37 PM EDT

PHILADELPHIA -- In just six years, the number of deaths year from opioid overdoses in the U.S. has doubled to more than 42,000. The crisis spurred the surgeon general on Thursday to encourage more people to carry an antidote to reverse overdoses.

In Philadelphia, the nation's fifth largest city, the opioid epidemic is so bad that city officials are now taking extreme measures to save lives. They want to give addicts a safe place to get high.

One 30-year-old woman who goes by Rachel has been getting high for the past 13 years.  

"I'm actually trying to get a detox so I don't want my habit to take control," she said.

She's a mother of two. But her desire to care for her kids, she says, isn't strong enough to pull her from under a sheet of darkness and away from her body's call for heroin.

Last year, 1,200 people died of a drug overdose in Philadelphia, a number that's quadrupled in the past five years. To address that, Philadelphia is moving to become one of the first cities in the nation to allow safe injection sites, where people can go and shoot up heroin under the supervision of health care workers. It's part of a new approach to tackle the opioid crisis by treating it as a public health issue.

duncan-safe-injections-0405-thomas-new-new-frame-3377.jpg

A city council meeting in Philadelphia weighed whether to allow safe injection sites

CBS News

The sites could end up in one neighborhood, known as Kensington, an area where you can see addicts sticking themselves with needles filled with drugs and living in encampments.

"In all the years i've been covering marginalized communities like this one here in Kensington, i've never seen anything close to this level of desperation," said Christopher Moraff, a freelance journalist who has been covering the opioid epidemic.

At a public hearing that took place Wednesday night, those who opposed an injection site in their neighborhood explained why.

"When you say this is best for saving lives you're not including our lives," said one person. "You're not thinking about me and what I experienced growing up and you're not thinking about my children who will be exposed to this as long as we live."

"We have a crisis here in Philadelphia," said Dr. Tom Farley, Philadelphia Health Commissioner. "These facilities look sort of like a clinic. If they're simply there to inject, they bring in their own drugs that they have bought on the street, they're given sterile equipment and they inject at the site. If they were to overdose on site, there are medical staff on site who can revive them."

Philadelphia is taking its cue from Vancouver, Canada, which is one of 100 cities around the world with a safe injection site. According to Dr. Farley, not one person has died while at the Vancouver site.

The Drug Enforcement Administration sent CBS News a statement that says, in part, "'Safe' injection sites violate federal law and are therefore subject to legal action."

duncan-safe-injections-0405-thomas-new-new-frame-5172.jpg

Dr. Tom Farley

CBS News

"Syringe exchange programs operate in the legal gray zone they have done so for years," said Farley.

While most did seem to support the controversial idea, it could take months, even years, for a safe injection site to open. Seattle and San Francisco are considering similar measures and could open theirs sooner.

Out on the streets, people will likely keep using, whether they have a secure place or not.

"We want a safe place to inject it," said Mark Gotweil Easter, one addict in Philadelphia. "We want a safe place to know that we can test the drug that we're injection into our bodies to know whether or not if it's actual product."

A spokesperson for the mayor's office says tax dollars will not be used. City leaders are hoping a private company will step up and run the injection sites, and they could be in Philadelphia as early as next year.

The City of Philadelphia sent an update after the story aired: The City of Philadelphia is committed to saving lives. Given the scope and devastation of the opioid crisis, which has claimed approximately 1,200 lives in 2017, the City has embarked on a comprehensive, 18-point plan to address the many ways this epidemic is affecting our residents. Comprehensive User Engagement Sites, or CUES, are not the only answer, but just one way that we can ensure people struggling with substance use disorder stay alive long enough to get into treatment. We know that most people fighting addiction eventually recover, and it is in everyone's best interest to make sure that our residents stay alive long enough to get there.