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Nicolais: Fear won’t be enough to stop safe injection sites

Denver and Colorado could make a positive impact for Coloradans suffering from drug addiction

Fear is all that stands between proposed safe injection sites in Denver and reality. Fear of the unknown. Fear of what might be. Fear fomented by stereotypes and political opponents. Fear of change and fear of failure.

Colorado shouldn’t be governed by fear. In this policy debate, fear is folly.

To be clear, we are not talking about some ill-conceived “Hamsterdam” project highlighted in HBO’s “The Wire.” Neither Denver nor the state suggest that whole city blocks should become a “free zone” for rampant crime. To the contrary, the proposals on the table would provide clean, staffed sites with professionals providing a safety net for users.

Mario Nicolais

Studies at other safe injection sites demonstrate a drop in overdose rates, an increase in detox and treatment program use, and countless lives saved. All that without any increase in crime or overall drug use in the surrounding areas.

Providing sites where drugs can be screened, overdoses avoided, and resources for sobriety obtained isn’t just the moral and humanitarian approach, it’s the fiscally conservative one, too.

If we should have learned anything from the defunct “War on Drugs,” it’s that end users aren’t the enemy; they are usually collateral damage with a substantial price tag. Safe injection sites recognize that reality.

Luckily for Colorado the leading proponents of safe injection sites, Denver City Councilman Albus Brooks and state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, know plenty about facing down fear. I’ve known both for years and can unequivocally state that neither is scared of anything that lies ahead.

I first met Brooks when we were both 18 and lived in Andrews Hall at the University of Colorado. Brooks came from California as a highly touted linebacker more accustomed to causing fear in the psyche of opposing quarterbacks than experiencing it himself.

That fearless mentality served him well years later when cancer beset him. A young, vibrant community leader and father, if Brooks ever felt afraid of that deadly disease, he never let anyone see it.

I didn’t meet Pettersen until she ran to be my state representative. By then Pettersen faced and conquered hardships most people only experience through a movie plot.

READ:Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Born to absentee parents, Pettersen began working when most are accustomed to after-school snacks and soccer practice. If she feared being homeless or hungry, she only turned it into a powerful motivator. In fact, her own mother’s well-documented and losing battle with addiction prompted Pettersen to champion safe injection sites years later.

If Pettersen is afraid of anything, she is only afraid she won’t do enough to help people caught in the same downward spiral that swallowed her mother.

Unfortunately, not everyone is as fearless as Brooks and Pettersen. Opponents of safe injection sites have already begun to prey on anyone susceptible to fear-mongering. They have little else on which to base an opposition campaign.

Without any proof or data linking safe injection sites to increased drug use or crime, opponents have employed close-up pictures of arms littered with puncture marks and allege hard-core drug use will become commonplace.

I doubt those tactics will work.

How do I know? Because just before this year’s election, Pettersen’s opponent for state Senate (and a one-time campaign foe of yours truly) sent out a campaign flier warning that Pettersen would put “heroin injection sites in your neighborhood.”

It went on to suggest Pettersen was “encouraging illegal behavior,” would “let addicts shoot up on your street” and that there would be, in big, bold, capital letters “heroin on your street.” I promptly gave the copy I received to Pettersen’s campaign and cast my ballot for her. So did almost 43,000 other people.

Maybe that is the best takeaway. Colorado voters have traditionally rejected campaigns based on fear. Too smart and too compassionate, I don’t think Colorado citizens are too afraid to make the right choice.

Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, healthcare, and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq