Obama's America: Once unthinkable heroin shoot-up rooms get serious look
Across the United States, heroin users have died in alleys behind convenience stores, on city sidewalks and in the bathrooms of fast-food joints - because no one was around to save them when they overdosed.
An alarming 47,000 American overdose deaths in 2014 - 60 percent from heroin and related painkillers like fentanyl - has pushed elected leaders from coast to coast to consider what was once unthinkable: government-sanctioned sites where users can shoot up under the supervision of a doctor or nurse who can administer an antidote if necessary.
"Things are getting out of control. We have to find things we can do for people who are addicted now," said New York state Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, who is working on legislation to allow supervised injection sites that would also include space for treatment services. "The idea shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. I don't see anyone else coming up with anything new and innovative."
Critics of the war on drugs have long talked about the need for a new approach to addiction, but the idea of allowing supervised injection sites is now coming from state lawmakers in New York, Maryland and California, along with city officials in Seattle, San Francisco and Ithaca, New York, who note that syringe exchanges were once controversial but now operate in 33 states.
While such sites have operated for years in places such as Canada, the Netherlands and Australia, they face significant legal and political challenges in the U.S., including criticism that they are tantamount to waving a white flag at an epidemic that should be fought with prevention and treatment.
"It's a dangerous idea," said John Walters, drug czar under President George W. Bush. "It's advocated by people who seem to think that the way we should help sick people is by keeping them sick, but comfortably sick."