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Denver moves forward with plan for supervised injection site for IV-drug users

City Council's ordinance is contingent on state legislation, and flouts federal law

Used and exchanged needles are collected in a bucket at the Harm Reduction Action Center, a needle-exchange program across from the state Capitol. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Denver City Council approved plans Monday night to open a supervised injection site where IV-drug users could inject heroin near staff standing by with the life-saving antidote to opioid overdose.

The two-year pilot program is contingent on state legislation that would create criminal immunity for those using drugs at the site, a sterile clinic containing private booths.

No American city has such a site, though several — including New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle — are moving forward on plans to open one. Supervised injection sites, which have opened in more than 60 international cities, are illegal under federal law.

“There is a national health crisis in front of us and cities are on the front line,” Councilman Albus Brooks said just before a 12-1 vote on his bill. “Tonight we act to save lives and repair families.

“When we view people simply as addicts, we rob them of their humanity. This ordinance is not about addicts. This is about our neighbors.”

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

Only Councilman Kevin Flynn voted against the measure. Other city leaders said a supervised injection site would become another tool for the city to deal with addiction, and a way to prevent overdose deaths happening on the city’s streets, public parks, alleys and restaurant bathrooms.

The measure requires Mayor Michael Hancock’s signature but he has indicated he will support it.

More than 200 people died of drug overdoses in Denver last year, more deaths than were caused by firearms.

“You’ve got to remove your fear,” Councilman Paul Lopez said. “Look at this person as a human being and the end goal is saving their life. Get out of this mindset that, ‘Oh, this is scary,’ that this is a bunch of folks shooting up and we’re enabling them.’”

The staff who would run the site would not enable drug-users, but act as supervisors to “make sure they’re not killing themselves,” Lopez said.

City and state officials tried to pass similar measures last year, but the idea failed out of concern that it would condone illegal activity, create an area of heavy drug sales and defy federal law.

The legislation was killed by a Republican-controlled Senate committee in February. 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.

At supervised injection sites in other cities, drug-users inject heroin or methamphetamine in curtained booths containing sterile needles, clean water and testing strips to make sure their drugs don’t contain fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is more potent than heroin. They shoot up, wait about 20 minutes to make sure they are OK, and then leave.

City leaders have avoided discussion about where they would locate the proposed site. The Harm Reduction Action Center, which runs a needle-exchange program across East Colfax Avenue from the state Capitol, has offered to host the site.


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