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Stocked sanitary supplies are in bins on a shelf
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 cities could let “overdose prevention centers,” where people would be allowed to openly use illicit drugs under the supervision of health care workers or other trained staff, operate within their boundaries under a bill introduced in the state legislature Wednesday by four Democrats. 

House Bill 1202 is part of a yearslong debate around the centers, also sometimes called safe-use or supervised-injection sites. The centers would be designed to offer sterile drug-consumption paraphernalia and fentanyl test strips, as well as referrals to counseling. 

The driving idea behind the measure is to provide a place where people could ingest drugs purchased illegally and be quickly revived if necessary with naloxone, a drug used to reverse opioid overdose.

The measure does not mandate that cities open the centers; it simply gives them the option to open them. There is no funding attached to the bill. Denver’s City Council in 2018 voted to allow a pilot safe-use site near the state Capitol, but without backing from the legislature the proposal fizzled. 

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The lead sponsors of the bill are Reps. Elisabeth Epps of Denver and Jenny Willford of Northglenn, as well as Sens. Kevin Priola of Henderson and Julie Gonzales of Denver.

“Preventable drug overdoses are a public health crisis that impact every Colorado community and are a matter of both local and state concern,” says the bill’s preamble, which is much longer than the policy itself. “For far too long, Colorado has disproportionately favored a criminal justice approach to substance use disorders instead of prioritizing public health. … It is in the public interest and would serve Colorado’s goal of saving lives and preventing overdose deaths to affirm that overdose prevention centers are permissible under Colorado law.”

Epps, the top House sponsor of the measure, refuses to speak with The Colorado Sun. Priola is the No. 1 sponsor of the bill in the Senate.

“It will save lives,” Priola said of House Bill 1202. He said the measure will give municipalities a local-control option to decide for themselves whether they want to allow the centers. 

In 2019, Priola worked on similar draft legislation with then-Sen. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, but there was fierce pushback from Republicans at the Capitol and the bill was never introduced.

Priola was a Republican in 2019. He switched his party affiliation to Democrat last year. Pettersen is now a U.S. representative. 

Gov. Jared Polis has expressed skepticism about safe-use sites and may veto the measure should it arrive on his desk. It’s unclear if there is even enough political support at the Capitol to pass House Bill 1202. 

The measure already has 26 cosponsors in the House and five cosponsors in the Senate, all of them Democrats. However the list of cosponsors doesn’t include House Speaker Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, nor Senate President Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder. 

There are 65 representatives in the House and 35 members of the Senate. Republicans, whose numbers are limited at the Capitol, are certain to fight the measure.

Priola said the large number of cosponsors and a better understanding about drug use means the measure is “highly likely” to pass.  

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The bill was assigned to the House Public and Behavioral Health and Human Services Committee, but hasn’t been scheduled for its first hearing.

There are safe-use sites in New York City and efforts are underway to open similar centers in other parts of the U.S. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, vetoed a measure that would have allowed a trial run of safe-use sites in some of that state’s biggest cities.

Jesse Paul

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...