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Supplies are available to heroin users at The Harm Reduction Action Center in Denver, 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

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser is supporting a Philadelphia nonprofit in its legal battle with the federal government over whether it should be allowed to open a supervised drug consumption site in that city, stepping into an issue at the center of one of Colorado’s most divisive political debates. 

Weiser, a Democrat, joined six other states and Washington, D.C., in filing a friend-of-the-court brief in the federal government’s legal battle with the Philadelphia nonprofit Safehouse, which wants to open a location where people can inject drugs, such as heroin, under the watch of medical professionals.

The Pennsylvania city has been among those hardest hit by the opioid crisis. 

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser speaks at the Colorado Capitol on Feb. 12, 2019. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“The opioid epidemic is destroying lives, families and communities here in Colorado and around the country,” Weiser’s spokesman, Lawrence Pacheco, said in a written statement Thursday.  “States are laboratories of democracy and should have the flexibility to develop appropriate public health solutions.”

But in Colorado, a similar effort to try out supervised drug-consumption sites appears to be stalled after attempts by state lawmakers to open the door for their creation have been caught in a thick political web. 

In 2018, a bill that would have allowed the sites was rejected by Republicans. And this year, legislation wasn’t even introduced after fierce pushback from the GOP and questions about whether there would be enough Democratic support to pass a measure. 

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Some Republicans threatened to pursue recall elections against any Democrat attempting to pass a bill around the sites. 

State Sen. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat who has spearheaded efforts to allow supervised drug-consumption sites in Colorado, told The Colorado Sun on Thursday that she is not planning to introduce legislation around them in 2020.

She said there needs to be more education and understanding around the initiative, seen as a way to stem the tide of opioid overdoses.

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

State Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat who has also backed the idea, said she hasn’t decided yet whether to pursue legislation in 2020. However, she said she plans to have discussions about it during a legislative interim committee on opioids. 

Colorado’s U.S. attorney Jason Dunn, appointed by President Donald Trump, warned Denver and state lawmakers in a letter that he would take action if a supervised drug-consumption site were opened.

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

“When you read the statute, it clearly says that any facility that is used for people to gather and do illegal narcotics is a crime and that it’s also subject to seizure and civil action under federal law,” Dunn told The Colorado Sun in April. “I think a safe-injection site is a bad idea. Again, we don’t weigh in on specific legislation or city ordinances, but I felt like it was important to let people know that we take that very seriously and that the Department of Justice takes it very seriously.”

Dunn said he could take several actions to intervene if a supervised drug-consumption site were opened, including everything from seizing the facility to criminal charges.

The Philadelphia case is expected to provide a legal roadmap for cities and states that are weighing whether to open supervised drug consumption sites.

Also joining Weiser in filing the friend-of-the-court brief were attorneys generals from Delaware, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon and Virginia. The group painted the issue as centering around states’ rights.

“Operating or endorsing safe injection sites falls within the states’ power to implement public health measures,” the brief argues. “Although the sites are new to the United States, over 100 sites operate in 60 different cities in Canada, Australia and many European nations.”

The brief continued: “After studying these sites, many states and cities are considering them as a means of saving lives. The studies predict that the sites will reduce deaths and costs. And they are a unique solution to the common problem in many urban areas of rapid, unintended overdoses of heroin or fentanyl.”

A number of cities also have filed briefs in support of Philadelphia. 

Weiser’s decision to sign onto the brief marks his seventh brief filed in a case against the Trump administration since taking office in January. He has also signed onto or filed eight lawsuits against the administration. 

MORE: Here are all the lawsuits against the Trump administration Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser has joined

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...