The opioid crisis con­tinues to grow year after year, with heroin-​​related deaths jumping 39 per­cent from 2012 to 2013. Now one U.S. com­mu­nity has pro­posed an inno­v­a­tive strategy to help combat the scourge, which is rav­aging cities and towns nationwide.

Last week, the mayor of Ithaca, New York, announced the most aggres­sive alter­na­tive plan to date: opening a safe site where drug users can inject the drug under the super­vi­sion of med­ical per­sonnel without the fear of being arrested.

While this may seem far-​​fetched, North­eastern Uni­ver­sity asso­ciate pro­fessor Leo Beletsky, an expert in law and public health, explained that this mea­sure should be seen in a con­text of an extra­or­di­nary situation.

Leo Beletsky

Assis­tant pro­fessor Leo BeletskyPhoto by Brooks Canaday/​Northeastern University

I don’t think it’s crazy at all,” said Beletsky, who holds joint appoint­ments in the School of Law and Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences. “We need inno­v­a­tive inter­ven­tions because what we are doing is not working.”

Ithaca’s safe injec­tion site would be the first of its kind in the U.S, but dozens of sim­ilar facil­i­ties are already oper­ating in Europe, Aus­tralia, and Canada. A safe injec­tion site that opened in Van­couver in 2003 sees up to 1,000 vis­i­tors a day. And exten­sive research sug­gests the inter­ven­tion is working: According to a study by the British Columbia Center for Excel­lence in HIV/​AIDS, there was a 35 per­cent reduc­tion in heroin over­dose deaths in the neigh­bor­hood sur­rounding the site from 2001 to 2005. It has also demon­strated pos­i­tive impact on infec­tious dis­ease trans­mis­sion and quality of life in the neighborhood.

You can’t stop people from doing cer­tain things, but you can help them make better choices.” — Leo Beletsky

Aside from those direct ben­e­fits, the Van­couver facility is also co-​​located with a range of other ser­vices,” Beletsky explained. “At the intake desk they will imme­di­ately ask you what ser­vices you would like that day, whether it’s wanting wound care, get­ting tested, or entering detox. From my per­spec­tive, the optimal safe injec­tion pro­gram pro­vides the broadest pos­sible sup­port to their clients.”

Ithaca is one of many com­mu­ni­ties trying to combat the rise of heroin and pre­scrip­tion drug addic­tion. In a three-​​week span in 2014, the city saw three fatal over­doses and 13 non-​​fatal over­doses. That same year, more than 1,000 people in Mass­a­chu­setts died from acci­dental overdose.

But there is hope. According to Beletsky, super­vised injec­tion sites pro­vide health ben­e­fits as well as psy­cho­log­ical ben­e­fits, giving people who may be facing com­plex prob­lems and lim­ited options the chance to take charge of their health. “These facil­i­ties help highly-​​vulnerable drug users to make better choices,”

Opening this type of offi­cial facility any­where in the U.S. would require over­coming a range of legal bar­riers. As an example, Beletsky pointed to a pro­vi­sion in the fed­eral Con­trolled Sub­stances Act that imposes crim­inal lia­bility on land­lords if they are aware of illicit drug activity in their buildings.

Clearly if you are the city gov­ern­ment and you are run­ning a facility, you need to pro­tect your staff,” Beletsky said. “But the polit­ical environment—from fed­eral down to the local levels—has never been more favor­able to inno­va­tions like safe injec­tion facil­i­ties. You have to ask, ‘How likely is it that the state would come after a mayor for doing some­thing like this, given all of the evi­dence that it works?’”