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California is considering safe injection centers to help alleviate overdose crisis

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

California is considering creating safe spaces for people to use illegal drugs. These so-called safe consumption sites are an effort to save lives as overdoses skyrocket. Lesley McClurg from member station KQED explains.

LESLEY MCCLURG, BYLINE: When Gary McCoy was 18 years old, he overdosed on heroin alone in a gas station bathroom.

GARY MCCOY: I immediately went back to my dealer's house from the hospital and bought everything that she had because it was the best heroin I had ever done.

MCCLURG: At the time, he was grappling with his sexuality in a conservative town in Virginia.

MCCOY: I wasn't quite in the closet, but I wasn't really open about the fact that I was gay.

MCCLURG: He spent the next decade high, homeless and near the brink. At 24, McCoy learned he was HIV positive. He was staying in a cheap hotel in San Francisco.

MCCOY: I weighed 110 pounds. I had psoriasis all over my body, injecting every day, couch-surfing when I could, trading sex for drugs or a place to sleep.

MCCLURG: When he didn't have anywhere else to go, he'd get high inside the bathroom stall at a public library.

MCCOY: I think if I had a place to go to where I could safely use, where people could see that I needed medical assistance, I think it would have avoided a lot of trauma.

MCCLURG: Just last year, more than 100,000 people died of an overdose in the U.S., which is why California lawmakers are debating whether to sanction safe consumption or safe injection sites. These facilities, where people bring their own drugs, look kind of like a hair salon - with lots of mirrors and sterile supplies.

ALEX KRAL: People are going to a booth. There's somebody there who is helping them.

MCCLURG: Alex Kral is an epidemiologist for the nonprofit research group RTI International. He's studied sites in more than a dozen countries.

KRAL: And then you have a second room where people can chill out, as they say - like, a chill out room or a place where they can be after they have used drugs.

MCCLURG: These facilities range from converted RVs to warehouses, always stocked with naloxone to reverse overdoses.

KRAL: There have been probably tens of millions of injections people have done in these sites over the last 35 years, and no one's ever died of an overdose at one of these sites.

ANNE MARIE SCHUBERT: You can call it what you want to call it. It's an open drug scene.

MCCLURG: Anne Marie Schubert is the district attorney in Sacramento County.

SCHUBERT: The fact that we're considering allowing our government to essentially aid and abet the illicit use of drugs that are killing our citizens, I find shocking.

MCCLURG: Schubert says providing a haven for drug use sends the message they are safe. She's pushing for something else.

SCHUBERT: We need to get people to the point where they get treatment, even if they don't want it. It doesn't mean you throw them in jail, but you've got to have court-ordered treatment.

MCCLURG: She says current law does not allow judges to order nearly enough people to get help. The last time safe consumption was on the table in California, a bill made it all the way to Governor Jerry Brown's desk in 2018. He, a Democrat, vetoed it. Now, another Democrat, state Senator Scott Wiener, is trying again.

SCOTT WIENER: What we want to do is for people who are already using, that instead of having them use on the sidewalk when your kid is walking by, to give them a place where they can go inside, so if they do overdose, they don't die.

MCCLURG: Wiener's bill would pilot sites in San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles. It has passed the Senate. Now it's in the state assembly. A recent cost-benefit analysis done in San Francisco shows that every dollar the city spends on safe consumption would save $2.33.

WIENER: Our hospitals, our emergency rooms, our fire department, our ambulances are all spending huge resources on people who are using on our streets.

MCCLURG: Because, Weiner says, they overdose and end up in jail. Gary McCoy was one of those frequent flyers. Now that he's in recovery, he's a huge advocate for safe consumption sites.

MCCOY: I don't know if I would have stopped using sooner, but I certainly would have been in much better hands.

MCCLURG: McCoy finally limped into treatment when his drug dealer nudged him to go. Today, when he strolls through San Francisco, he always chats with people getting high on the streets. He lets them know there's help available. That's the real service outreach workers at safe consumption sites could provide.

For NPR News, I'm Lesley McClurg in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUS GUS' "CHANGES COME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lesley McClurg