Inside supervised injection sites and fight against the opioid crisis

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Not a day goes by that Linda Ventura does not think about her son Thomas.

"Thomas was an outstanding lacrosse player, scouted when he was in the ninth grade," Ventura said.

But after the divorce of his parents and the loss of his grandparents, Thomas found his way to drugs to cope with the pain.

"There was Thomas, my son, who was charismatic, could walk into a room and charm everyone, and then there was Thomas struggling with substance abuse who was a mean, deviant thief," Ventura said.

After years of therapy and detox programs, Ventura thought her son finally found a path to being clean in 2012. Thomas had returned home from detox full of life, energy, happiness and hope that he was clean.

On March 13,Ventura and her family went to bed happy.

On March 14, Ventura woke up and headed to work on Wall Street via the Long Island Railroad. At 7:15 in the morning, she got a phone call she will never forget.

"My 18-year-old son found his brother locked in the bathroom and dead of an overdose," she said.

Her son died at the age of 21.

Since that day, Ventura has fought tirelessly to raise awareness in the fight against opioid use. That's because since 2012, heroin and opioid overdose deaths have increased nationwide every year. In 2016 alone, nearly 65,000 people died from drug overdoses.

"It's time to start thinking outside the box of normal treatment," Ventura said.

She believes there are many options to fighting the battle, one being a concept that is gaining in popularity called safe or supervised injection sites. That involves a location where a user can legally inject drugs under the supervision of a doctor or nurse. While it may sound alarming, those sites exist all over the world.

"The primary reason to open an injection site is to save lives," said Liz Evans, the executive director for New York Harm Reduction Educators based in Harlem. "Injection sites stop people from dying and that is explicitly what they are for."

Evans traveled with PIX11 to the streets of Vancouver, British Columbia, where she was one of the driving forces behind North America's first-ever supervised injection site, which opened in 2003.

"For our city, we had to try something new," Evans said.

The facility was named inSite and since opening, it has seen 6,440 overdoses inside the building. But not one of those overdoses resulted in death.

"Right away when the site opened, we saw a visible reduction in open drug use," Evans said. "Research also showed a 45 percent decrease in the market of public disorder."

There was concern from residents who lived near the site. They were worried about drug dealing, which was still happening on the streets.

"There was a lot of misapprehension because of fear that this is celebrating drug use," Evans said.

That misapprehension came from the top, including the Vancouver Police Department. Like so many police departments in the United States, they first thought they could arrest their way out of the problem.

"I was against it," Inspector Bill Spearn said. "I was against it, because I didn't know anything about it."

Spearn now freely admits he was way wrong.

On the PIX11 News at 10 p.m. Tuesday, we'll go inside the facilities to reveal how they work and examine further Mayor Bill de Blasio's plan for similar sites in New York City.

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