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In-Depth: How safe-injection sites work

They're called safe-injection sites, a place where people can use illegal drugs under medical supervision. (WGME)

MONTREAL (WGME) – According to the Maine Attorney General, more than 400 Mainers died of a drug overdose in 2017, the highest amount ever.

Now local and state leaders are looking at a new way to save lives.

They're called safe-injection sites, a place where people can use illegal drugs under medical supervision.

There aren't any in the U.S., so we sent our Jennifer Long to Montreal, Canada to see how the sites are working there.

Montreal has four safe injection sites; Cactus is one of them. It opened less than a year ago, but it's already supervised thousands of safe injections and not one person has died while using.

Tucked away on quiet Berger Street in downtown, Cactus Montreal is far from quiet when open.

Sandhia Vadlamudy is the executive director of the site. She says about 100 people come here every day to inject illegal drugs.

The facility provides everything a person would need free of charge.

Users bring their own drugs, and inject themselves.

“When the person does their injection while staff, there is always staff in the room here, so if the face changes, if there is a change in their face, the color their eyes, somebody can rapidly identify and offer support and react properly,” Vadlamudy said.

Vadlamudy says no one has ever died of an overdose here, or any other safe injection site in Canada.

Dr. Carole Morissette is with Montreal Public Health, and says the sites operate legally with an exemption from the federal drug law, but she says it took a while to get here.

“During the last 10 years, we observed a lot of changes in the Canadian perspective on supervised injection services,” Morissette said.

"Insite," Canada's first safe injection site, opened in 2003 in Vancouver.

It faced severe criticism and skepticism from the Canadian people, and the government.

Two users preemptively sued to keep the site open after the government appeared it would keep the facility from being able to operate.

In 2011, the supreme court ruled in favor of the users and the site.

There are now 25 sites operating across the country, but despite implementing the sites, Canada continues to see a rise in overdose deaths.

According to data from the coroner's office, the number of overdose deaths are increasing in Quebec.

Since June of last year, more than 100 people died due to overdose in Montreal.

An average of 11 deaths a month, up from six deaths a month in previous years.

Maine's numbers are much higher than Montreal’s, with the attorney general reporting more than 400 overdose deaths in 2017.

Dr. Morissette says safe-injection sites would be worth a try, but warns they require collaboration on many levels.

“I think to be able to implement that kind of services in the state you need to have the collaboration of all the stakeholders that are involved including health authorities, public security authorities, probably a change in the regulation or the law,” Morissette said.

Even with more sites set to open in Canada, Vadlamudy sees no sign of things slowing down at Cactus, as the conversation about safe-injection sites just begins to pick up speed across the border in Maine.

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