As Baltimore grapples with an opioid epidemic that has claimed thousands of lives in recent years, a new study suggests that users would like to do something to confront the dangers even if they aren’t ready for treatment.

Podcast: Demystifying the opioid crisis

A new study by researchers in the Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health found 77 percent of opioid users surveyed in the hard-hit cities of Baltimore, Boston and Providence, R.I., support establishing designated spaces where they could be supplied with sterile syringes and have medical support in case of overdose. The so-called safe consumption spaces also can offer a line to addiction treatment.


Such spaces, also known as safe injection facilities and overdose prevention sites, operate in about a dozen other countries including Canada and Australia but are not legal in the United States under federal law.

Despite the attention and heavy investment of public dollars in combating overdose deaths, which numbered 70,000 around the country in 2017, mostly from opioids, the safe consumption spaces remain controversial. Communities believe they would harm the neighborhood. Others believe they would encourage drug use.

Maryland gets $17 million grant designed to expand access to opioid treatment. The two-year-old program seeks to address the opioid crisis in part by making Food and Drug Administration-approved medications more widely available.

They remain politically unpalatable to many politicians, but they have gained the backing of some U.S. advocates, public health officials and local lawmakers in cities including New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco. Supporters believe they would not only prevent fatal overdoses but reduce spread of infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis.

They also could reduce drug use in other public places such as streets, parks or abandoned houses. Support was higher in the Hopkins survey — about 84 percent — among those users who routinely rely on such public places to consume pills or inject heroin or the more potent fentanyl now responsible for the bulk of opioid-related overdose deaths.

The study of 326 opioid users contacted through street recruitment and local syringe programs was published June 5 in the Journal of Urban Health.

About 84 percent in Boston, 78 percent in Baltimore and 68 percent in Providence said they were willing to use the spaces. Among the respondents, almost 70 percent reported they were homeless, 60 percent said they used drugs in public and a third reported they had experienced an overdose in the past six months.

“The study documents that people who use drugs are motivated to be safe and take precautions to reduce their exposure to harm,” said Susan Sherman, professor in the Department of Health, Behavior and Society and the study’s senior investigator. “We can use this evidence to holistically address the opioid epidemic.”