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Supervised injection site supporters aren’t ready to give up on the conversation in Colorado

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, leader of the push nationally, visited Denver this week after a victory in federal court

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
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The quest to include Denver among the first cities in the nation to open a supervised injection site for drug users isn’t dead, at least not along the front lines of the city’s war against heroin.

Colorado was buzzing last fall — on talk radio, at City Council and among state policymakers — about a proposal to legalize a drug-injection site in the capital city. Denver passed an ordinance to allow it, contingent on state approval, and Democratic lawmakers said they would introduce the needed legislation. 

Then the whole idea evaporated little more than a month into the legislative session. 

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Supporters said they had lost their message as a narrative took hold about dead-eyed heroin-users stumbling around downtown, attracted by a legal place to shoot up. People weren’t listening, supporters said, as they spoke of research showing a legal site would reduce overdose deaths and help get people into treatment in a state where opioids are killing more than 500 people per year.

The political storm has not deterred Lisa Raville, executive director of the Harm Reduction Action Center, a needle-exchange and support center across East Colfax Avenue from the Capitol. 

Raville is still working to win people over one at a time. But this week, she went bigger, hosting nearly 300 people at a fundraiser with a guest speaker who is considered the leader nationally in the push for supervised injection sites, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. 

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. 

A day before Rendell’s trip to Colorado, a federal district court judge ruled that a plan by his Philadelphia nonprofit to open a supervised injection site is not in violation of federal drug laws. U.S. Justice Department lawyers, who have vowed to appeal, were attempting to shut down the project. And attorneys general in several states — including Colorado’s Phil Weiser — had sided with the nonprofit, called Safehouse.

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)

In the 56-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh in Philadelphia said the supervised injection site was not illegal because its purpose is not to dispense controlled substances, but to save people’s lives from overdose. 

Rendell said in an interview with The Colorado Sun that he is confident Safehouse can raise enough money to open two sites, and might have one open as soon as the end of the year. The sites now will have federal authority to operate but will violate state law because there was no bill passed by the Pennsylvania legislature to grant permission.

The ruling has no jurisdiction here. But Colorado could open a supervised site with a similar ruling in federal court, bypassing legislative approval, Rendell said. The catch is that the Harm Reduction center would have to raise its own money and use no public funds, as Safehouse is doing.

“As long as they pass muster with the federal courts, I think they are in business,” he said.

MORE: AG Phil Weiser backs Philly in lawsuit over supervised-drug-use sites, even if Colorado’s effort is stalled

Rendell, a Democrat who was Pennsylvania’s governor from 2003 to 2011, made waves last year after former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said federal authorities would respond swiftly if Philadelphia dared open an injection site.

“I’ve got a message for Mr. Rosenstein … They can come and arrest me first, because federal prisons are nicer than state prisons,” Rendell said to Philadelphia public radio station WHYY.

As mayor of Philadelphia, Rendell authorized a needle exchange site in 1992, an effort to stop the spread of AIDS. 

“The neighbors worried it would bring addicts into their neighborhood and the crime rate would soar,” he recalled. “That was their No. 1 fear. The second fear was that we were making people into addicts because they could get clean needles. No one starts out to become an addict because they can get a clean needle.”

Raville is hoping the former governor’s visit will push the topic of a supervised injection site back to the forefront in Colorado. “We’re hoping he can be supportive to our elected officials and decision-makers,” she said. 

But whether the legislative strategy will work is unclear. Sen. Brittany Pettersen, who planned to run the legislation last session but then didn’t introduce it because it didn’t have enough support, said Thursday she had no plans to run it next year. “It’s a good first step, but we have a lot of work to do to build enough support in Colorado and the Capitol to pass a bill,” the Lakewood Democrat said. 

What happened last legislative session was a “case of misinformation,” Raville said. The public and policymakers in general knew too little about injectable drug use when they were asked to support an injection site, she said. Raville is countering the misperceptions by talking to business leaders and law enforcement officers who will share her message “at meetings and dinner parties that I’m never going to be invited to,” she said. 

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)

People are already injecting heroin and other drugs downtown — in alleys, restaurant bathrooms and bus stations, Raville tells them all. Injecting in a place where staff could save people from overdose and encourage them to get treatment would save lives, she said.

Of the 209 overdose deaths in Denver in 2018, 23 happened in public places — including nine in transit stations, where Raville said bathroom doors had been removed. Some of the churches on East Colfax Avenue are considering whether to lock their doors in order to prevent people from using drugs in the entryway or sanctuary, she said. 

The Harm Reduction Action Center reports giving 3,404 people clean syringes so far in 2019 and disposing of 211,356 used ones. It also has trained 295 people to administer the opioid antidote naloxone, and 175 people reported using their naloxone to save someone’s life from overdose. 

“Quite simply, we have injection sites all over town,” Raville said. “I want to bring it out of the public sphere and into a private environment.”