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Denver city councilman, state lawmaker revive plans for safe injection site, in spite of federal law

Drug overdoses kill more people than firearms in Denver and a Colorado state lawmaker calls opioid addiction the “greatest public health crisis of our time”

Needles from heroin-users are collected in bins at the Harm Reduction Action Center in Denver. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Tony Fairchild died leaning against a tree along the Cherry Creek Trail, overlooking the water as autumn leaves fell.

It could have happened anywhere — a restaurant bathroom or a shadowy alley. Not long before, Tony had overdosed in the restroom of a Sonic Drive-In, and police had to break down the door to get him to a hospital.

Joelle Fairchild didn’t learn that her 27-year-old son had been shooting heroin until after Tony’s death on Oct. 22, 2014. He hid it from her because he was ashamed, she said.

This is why she now tells anyone who will hear it about how her sensitive, artistic boy died outdoors, alone. And it’s the reason Fairchild is an outspoken supporter of a Denver proposal to open a safe injection site, a clinical place where IV drug users could inject heroin or methamphetamine in private booths near trained professionals standing by with the life-saving antidote to an opioid overdose.

A cross left by a cousin marks the spot where Tony Fairchild died of a heroin overdose along the Cherry Creek Trail in Denver in 2014. (Photo provided by Joelle Fairchild)

“I feel like I’m his voice on Earth. I’m still his mother,” said Fairchild, a portfolio administrator at a downtown financial investment firm who recently testified in favor of the proposal at a Denver City Council committee hearing.

Fairchild was at work when her ex-husband called to tell her the thing they had feared most had happened.

A transient man saw Tony leaned against the tree during the day, then saw him in the same spot late that night. He called 911. It took until the next morning to identify Tony and call his family. Fairchild wonders how many people walked past him before the homeless man called for help.

“We knew something was going to happen to Tony,” she said. “We tried to be tough love — ‘if he’s high he can’t be around us.’ That doesn’t work.”

Fairchild knew her son, who had attention-deficit disorder, had struggled with addiction since high school, starting with alcohol and marijuana. She also knew Tony used opioid pills in the years before he died.

After he died, Fairchild found out Tony had been getting clean needles at a Denver needle-exchange program run by the Harm Reduction Action Center. She is convinced he would have used a safe injection site if one had existed.

The Harm Reduction Action Center displays a safe-neighborhood award. The center is a needle-exchange and offers training in naloxone, an antidote to heroin overdose. It has made more than 52,000 referrals for drug treatment, mental health therapy and testing since 2012. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

There are more than 60 safe injection sites worldwide, mainly in Canada and Europe, but no American city has managed to open one. It’s possible Denver could become the first, but other cities, including San Francisco, Philadelphia, Seattle and New York, are in the running.

Opening a site would require not just a city ordinance, but state legislation to provide criminal immunity for drug-users at the safe injection site. City and state officials tried to pass similar measures last year, but despite bipartisan support, the proposal fizzled out of concern that it would condone illegal activity, create an area of heavy drug sales and defy federal law. It was seen by many as too radical for Denver.

The legislation was killed by a Republican-controlled Senate committee in February. One Republican who voted against it, Sen. Vicki Marble of Fort Collins, said at the time that the proposal wasn’t fully vetted. She urged Colorado to do more research “before we jump into a pilot program that you know as well as I will become part of Colorado’s culture.”

Tony Fairchild struggled with addiction beginning in high school. He died of an overdose at age 27. (Photo provided by Joelle Fairchild)

This time around, Democrats will control both the House and Senate, and the proposal — along with a list of other ideas to mitigate the opioid epidemic — is more likely to pass than it was last session. The Denver measure, which would create a two-year pilot program, was passed unanimously Nov. 7 by the council’s safety and homelessness committee.

“Obviously we are here because we are in a public-health crisis,” said Councilman Albus Brooks, who is scheduled to present his bill to the full City Council on Monday night. “Our No. 1 goal is to save lives in the city of Denver.

“The support for this has been overwhelming,” he said. “We’re not pushing this, we’re responding to the community.”

Drug overdoses are now the No. 2 cause of death in Denver, behind blunt-force trauma and ahead of firearm deaths. In 2017, 201 people died of drug overdoses, the most ever for the city, according to the Denver medical examiner. In recent years, two people have died inside grocery stores, one in a grocery store parking lot stairwell, another in a coffee shop, one in a field next to an Interstate 25 exit ramp and one near a hospital ambulance bay.

The city measure would create an exception to Denver nuisance laws and and a law that prohibits possession of a injecting device. The safe injection site would close after two years unless it is determined the program “promotes the protection of the health of Denver residents.”

The whole thing is contingent on state legislation.

Sen.-elect Brittany Pettersen, whose mother nearly died because of heroin addiction, has already pulled a bill title and plans to sponsor the legislation, along with a package of measures intended to increase access to treatment and crack down on opioid-prescribing doctors who accept gifts from pharmaceutical companies pushing the drugs.

Supplies are available to heroin users at the Harm Reduction Action Center, which offers clean needles, training in the use of the overdose antidote naloxone, and assistance getting into treatment. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun

“This is about keeping people alive, bringing them out of the shadows,” she said. “This isn’t about whether or not you think people should be doing heroin. This is about whether you care about keeping them alive.”

For those who use IV drugs, a first step to recovery is visiting a needle-exchange program or safe injection site, Pettersen said. They develop relationships with the staff, and may someday accept a referral for a treatment program, she said. “We’re keeping them alive today,” she said, calling the nation’s opioid epidemic “the greatest public health crisis of our time.”

The sites aren’t “shooting galleries,” said Pettersen, a state representative from Lakewood who was politically attacked during her Senate campaign because of her support for safe injection sites.

A pamphlet at the Harm Reduction Action Center depicts a diorama of a booth at a safe injection site where IV drug users would inject heroin or methamphetamine. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The sites in other countries are clinical spaces where each person has a booth stocked with alcohol swabs to clean their skin, sterile water to cook their drugs and a clean syringe. Some have strips to test the drugs for fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is more potent than heroin. Users must bring their own drugs.

Drug users wait about 20 minutes after injecting to make sure they are OK, then walk out.

Data from some of the 60 international sites shows no deaths at a safe site, as well as decreased overdose deaths overall in those cities.

Supporters of a safe site for Denver point toward numbers from the Harm Reduction Action Center, a needle-exchange program across East Colfax Avenue from the state Capitol. The center has made more than 52,000 referrals to treatment centers, mental health therapy and testing since 2012.

Lisa Raville is executive director of the Harm Reduction Action Center, a needle-exchange program that also offers training in naloxone, the heroin overdose antidote. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

It also has trained 2,608 people to use naloxone, the antidote to a heroin overdose. It counts more than 919 lives saved through naloxone, which it encourages users to carry with them.

The center’s executive director, Lisa Raville, has offered to host the safe injection site. She sees 120 to 150 people every morning who come to exchange used syringes for clean ones.

“I can’t get them into treatment if they are not alive,” Raville said. “Every bathroom, alley and park will continue to be an injection site without this.”

Whether Denver — or any other American city — follows through with plans to open a safe injection site, there is still the matter of federal law.

The U.S. Department of Justice signaled in August that cities who approve such sites could face federal prosecution. In an opinion piece for The New York Times, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein called out Colorado and other states for exploring options to “help their residents use hard-core drugs.”

Rosenstein said safe injection sites would make the opioid crisis worse and pointed to a Redmond, Washington, city councilman’s description of a safe-injection site in Vancouver, British Columbia, as a “war zone” with “drug-addled, glassy-eyed people strewn about.”

In Denver, newly appointed U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn has not commented on whether as the state’s top federal prosecutor he would challenge a Colorado safe injection site.

San Francisco has plans to open a three-year safe injection site as a pilot project. California lawmakers passed legislation in August that paved the way, but the measure was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown. The Democratic governor criticized the bill for not requiring drug treatment and because it was contrary to federal law.

And in Philadelphia, officials are moving ahead with plans to open a site, which has the support of former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat. Rendell told NPR last month, “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.”

The Harm Reduction Action Center is across East Colfax Avenue from the Capitol. It offers clean needles, training in the use of the overdose antidote naloxone, and assistance getting into treatment. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Not too long ago, Cuica Montoya was among those who regularly picked up clean needles at the Harm Reduction Action Center. Montoya, 39, was rushed to a hospital by ambulance at least five times during the years she was homeless and shooting heroin.

Once a friend drove her in his car as she slumped over and stopped breathing. She woke up in a hospital bed with a tube in her nose and no recollection of why she was there.

Now on the other side of treatment, Montoya said she speaks for her friends who are dead.

“I don’t know anybody that is outside injecting drugs that that’s what they want to do in life,” she said. “There is that window of opportunity when somebody doesn’t want to continue to do the same thing over and over.”

Recovery, she said, only works if people who want to help are not judgmental. The shame of using drugs, especially in a public bathroom where someone might knock on the door, is so thick, Montoya said, it “keeps some of us swirling in this deep, dark hole.

“When people are looking at you and they are judging you, that feeling, it sucks,” she said. “It’s almost like reliving every mistake you’ve ever made in your whole life in that one judgmental look.”

Cuica Montoya, 39, spent years homeless and using heroin before getting into treatment in 2014. She is now sober and speaking out in favor of a safe injection site for Denver. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

After years of drug use that led to the breakup of her marriage, multiple arrests and homelessness, Montoya got clean in 2014 because she was locked in jail for three months. She had burned all her bridges. Even her mother wouldn’t let her move in with her when Montoya was released from jail.

She went to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and signed up for a program that included housing, mental health therapy and substance abuse treatment. Months later, as she was rolling burritos at Illegal Pete’s, she realized her calling was to become a peer navigator. Now she is a library employee, doing outreach to people who are homeless and have drug problems.

Montoya often runs into people she knows from her days on the streets, when she traveled with a pack and slept outside or in cheap motels. “I’m not the same person in my heart anymore,” she said.


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