AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Philadelphia is getting closer to opening what may be the country's first facility where people can use illegal opioids and other drugs all under medical supervision. A nonprofit has formed to launch the so-called supervised injection site. As Bobby Allen of member station WHYY reports, Trump administration officials are watching and promising a crackdown.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Since earlier this year, officials in Philadelphia have been studying the idea of a supervised injection site, where those struggling with addiction bring their own drugs and use under the watch of medical professionals. The creation of the nonprofit called Safehouse is the most significant step so far in making that a reality. One of the most prominent board members of the group is former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell.
ED RENDELL: Twelve-hundred-and-seventeen Philadelphians died of overdoses - most of them died alone - in the year 2017. It's the highest rate per capita of any big city in America. We've got to do something to stop it.
ALLYN: Other cities grappling with the opioid crisis, including New York, Seattle and San Francisco, are considering opening a supervised injection site but haven't done so yet. California Governor Jerry Brown recently vetoed a law that would help open one, saying it would enable illegal drug use. It's a position shared by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who told NPR in August that the Justice Department will not tolerate the opening of a supervised injection site in Philadelphia.
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ROD ROSENSTEIN: It remains illegal under federal law. And people who engage in that activity remain vulnerable to civil and criminal enforcement.
RENDELL: I have a message for Mr. Rosenstein. I'm the incorporator of the safe injection site nonprofit, and they can come and arrest me first.
ALLYN: Rendell says his brazen position takes him back in time to the early 1990s, when he was mayor and welcomed Philadelphia's first clean needle exchange during the AIDS crisis.
But offering clean needles to drug users is one thing. Inviting them into a building to use illegal opioids is a different matter entirely. Ronda Goldfein with the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania is another board member of Safehouse, the new nonprofit. She agrees that it's a controversial idea. But the model has saved lives in Canada and Europe.
RONDA GOLDFEIN: The idea is if today we can prevent that fatal overdose and we can build that relationship of trust, then maybe tomorrow - or even later today - we can encourage that person to get into treatment.
ALLYN: Although city officials are not directly involved with the nonprofit, Philadelphia's mayor and district attorneys support putting the site in Kensington, the heart of the city's opioid problem. The nonprofit has already raised $200,000. But the city councilwoman whose district includes Kensington, Maria Quinones-Sanchez, is still on the fence.
MARIA QUINONES-SANCHEZ: We have to reform the entire treatment services component before we can talk about a safe injection site as a tool within that reformed system.
ALLYN: On a recent visit to Kensington, the desperation was everywhere - syringes and drug bags strewn across sidewalks and train platforms; people nodding off in front of homes, next to delis, leaning against park cars. This is how 42-year-old Ray describes it. We're using just his first name because he uses illegal opioids.
RAY: It's like being at ground zero of zombie-land (ph), man. It's crazy.
ALLYN: Ray's wearing a pink shirt and shorts and has a Phillies baseball cap on backwards. He says he'd go to the supervised injection site because right now he uses...
RAY: Next to a step, in an alleyway, backyard - anywhere, anywhere.
ALLYN: Safehouse officials won't say yet when they hope to open their doors. But one thing is clear. They say if getting people like Ray off the streets and into a medical facility means defying the Trump administration, so be it.
For NPR News, I'm Bobby Allyn in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.