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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 cities still won’t be allowed to authorize the formation of centers where people could openly use illicit drugs under the supervision of health care workers or others trained in reversing overdoses after a state Senate committee Wednesday voted down a bill that would have provided a legal pathway for the sites. 

House Bill 1202 was rejected by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, with six of the nine members of the panel voting to shelve the measure.

Democratic Sens. Kyle Mullica of Thornton and Joann Ginal of Fort Collins indicated last week that would vote with the panel’s three Republicans in voting down the measure. And they did just that on Wednesday.

Sen. Lisa Cutter, D-Jefferson County, also voted down the bill, though she said she was doing so “reluctantly” and only because it was clear the measure had no path forward.

The bill’s failure comes amid a string of defeats at the Colorado Capitol over the past week for progressive Democrats.

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday gutted a measure backed by Gov. Jared Polis’ that would have required denser residential zoning in the state’s largest cities. The Senate Housing and Local Government Committee on Tuesday rejected a measure that would have lifted Colorado’s 40-year ban on cities and counties enacting rent control. Last week, the House Judiciary Committee voted down a proposed ban on the sale and transfer of so-called assault weapons in Colorado. 

All of the measures tested how liberal the overwhelming Democratic majorities in the Colorado House and Senate are. Democrats are enjoying more sustained power in Colorado than ever before and the recent failures show they are divided on how to use it.

House Bill 1202 was the latest iteration in a yearslong debate around so-called overdose prevention centers, also sometimes called safe-use or supervised-injection sites. The idea behind the proposal is to provide a place where people can use drugs purchased illegally and be quickly revived if necessary with naloxone, a drug used to reverse opioid overdose.

Cutter said during a hearing on the bill last week that her niece died of an overdose in a parking lot.

“Not in a center where she could be with people that were helping her not die so that she could live another day for the two kids that she left behind,” said Cutter, who voted “yes” on the bill.

“It’s hard to say that there’s a path to recovery if we are losing folks to overdose before we can get them into treatment,” said Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat and lead sponsor of the bill. 

Gonzales said some Colorado cities may be totally against the idea of opening overdose prevention centers and that’s OK. But she said her constituents are asking for one, and House Bill 1202 would have given Denver the opportunity to allow that.

“At the end of the day, if we save one life with an overdose prevention center, I think it’s worth it,” Dr. Joshua Barocas, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, testified Thursday before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.

But law enforcement cautioned against the measure. 

“I would just ask that this bill be looked at as a bridge too far,” Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams, a Republican representing the County Sheriffs of Colorado, told the committee, arguing that making it easier for people to use drugs isn’t the answer

Ginal echoed concerns that overdose prevention centers would fuel drug use in voting against the measure. 

Mullica said the bill is “a conversation that we should be having,” but that he was worried about how the measure would have let each city regulate an overdose prevention center in the way they see fit.

“I don’t believe someone should die because they have a drug addiction,” he said. “But I also think that with the policies we put forward, we need to make sure that they’re going to be to the best of our ability.”

The bill was first heard in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee last week, where Mullica and Ginal announced their opposition to the measure, indicating it would fail. Gonzales asked after a vote on the bill had already been called that a final determination on the bill be delayed so she could try to amend the legislation to win one or both of them over. 

The rare request was granted by the committee’s chair, Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, despite questions from Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, about whether she was violating legislative procedure. 

In the end, the delay didn’t make a difference. Mullica and Ginal remained steadfast in their opposition when the bill came up for a vote again on Wednesday.

Gov. Jared Polis has expressed skepticism about safe-use sites and signaled that he would potentially veto the measure should it have arrived on his desk. 

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.

The four prime sponsors of House Bill 1201 were Democrats: Sens. Kevin Priola and Julie Gonzales and Reps. Elisabeth Epps and Jenny Willford.

The 2023 legislative session in Colorado ends May 8.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....