While 2020 will always be known as the year the global COVID-19 pandemic began, there was another public health crisis playing out less publicly. 

Last year, at least 1,223 Coloradans died of overdoses, 20% more than in 2019. This is a tragedy, but I am hopeful it will finally be the wake-up call for our governments to start listening to the public health experts and law enforcement professionals calling for overdose prevention centers

OPCs (also known as supervised-use sites) are places where people with existing drug problems can consume drugs in a safe environment. They are an evidence-based intervention that can reduce fatal overdoses in a community, curb the spread of diseases caused by sharing consumption equipment, and improve access to treatment. 

Jason Thomas

Nurses at OPCs provide education, sterile injection supplies, and monitor participants for adverse reactions. Staff is supplied with naloxone to reverse overdoses immediately, saving lives and easing the resource burden on surrounding emergency medical services and police departments.

A cost-benefit analysis of opening an OPC in Baltimore found that a single facility would prevent six overdose deaths, 78 emergency room visits, and 108 ambulance calls annually. After accounting for the costs of the program, researchers estimated it would generate $6 million in savings each year. 

If and when participants are ready to stop using, OPC staff help participants safely taper their dosage and begin counseling sessions. As of September 2018, according to the University of Southern California’s Department of Nursing, “zero deaths have been reported at any” of the nearly 100 OPC sites around the world, and there’s no evidence that these programs increase crime.

While formerly serving the Prowers County Sheriff’s Office as a detention officer, I saw people cycle through our facility every day who didn’t belong there. Most of them had experienced unimaginable trauma, were living with severe psychological conditions, and/or had a chaotic relationship with drugs. 

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Treating drug use as a criminal issue further destabilized the lives of the individuals I thought we were helping. A select few were scared straight, but most of them were not. 

After spending time in my jail, nearly everyone who had a drug problem returned to drug use with no resources to correct their course. Except now they had a criminal record, which limited their job options, where they were allowed to live, and whether they could attend college, apply for loans, or keep custody of their children. 

We should not be shocked when people who lose everything turn to the only coping mechanism they’ve ever learned. 

For each overdose death, there are even more overdose survivors. Most, if not all, of these overdose-related 911 calls could be prevented, freeing up health and safety resources for other serious priorities that need our attention. 

I am a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a group of thousands of current and former police and other criminal-justice professionals who support overdose prevention centers because they put drug problems back into the hands of health professionals who have the tools to help, and because they improve trust in the justice system. 

Law enforcement’s lane is public safety, but we can’t maintain public safety without the trust of the people we serve. When we ask police to arrest and rearrest drug users, we are destroying their trust in law enforcement. 

It doesn’t matter if an officer was nice to Jim last week; if Jim gets arrested for injecting fentanyl under an overpass, he may not trust another police officer again for the rest of his life. When officers survey a neighborhood for evidence to solve a crime, Jim will be reluctant to speak to police, let alone offer help, for fear of being arrested again. Jim may not report a crime if he witnesses one, even if he is the victim. 

As a correctional officer, I felt this distrust, too, which only made my job more difficult and less safe. 

This is the perfect time to abandon our old ways of shaming and punishing people who use drugs and instead build public health systems based on evidence-based best practices. Overdose prevention centers must be part of those systems.

Too many of our loved ones have been lost, and too many more lives are on the line.  

Jason Thomas of Aurora is a former detention officer and a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership. 

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Jason Thomas

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @PoliceForReform