Colorado lawmakers plan to use an untested policy from Rhode Island as the model for a 2024 bill they are drafting that would pave the way for so-called overdose prevention centers in the state.
The centers, sometimes called harm-reduction or safe-use sites, are intended to be a place where people can use illegal drugs and, if necessary, be revived from an overdose by trained staff. The sites are also meant to provide counseling and access to substance-abuse treatment services.
Earlier this year, the Colorado legislature, which is controlled by Democrats, rejected a bill that would have let local governments authorize the centers to operate in their community. In August, some of the same lawmakers who supported that measure — several of whom sit on the legislature’s Opioid and Other Substance Abuse Disorders Study Committee — voted to try again in 2024 by drafting a new bill for next year’s lawmaking session, which begins in January and lasts 120 days.
This time, they say they will tweak the legislation to require more state control.
Colorado state Rep. Chris deGruy Kennedy, chair of the interim opioid committee and a supporter of the policy, said during a virtual forum last week he wants the new bill to focus on the Rhode Island policy in order to address some of the concerns of people who opposed this year’s Colorado effort.
Rhode Island’s legislature passed a bill in 2021 to create a two-year pilot program testing out the sites, also called “harm reduction centers.” But the first site won’t open until sometime next year.
“I think that the main reason we were gravitating a little bit towards the Rhode Island model is just because it has more robust state oversight to pair with the local control,” the Lakewood Democrat said last week during a virtual public meeting with Rep. Elisabeth Epps, D-Denver, and Sen. Kevin Priola, D-Henderson, two members of the committee who are helping him with the draft.
DeGruy Kennedy highlighted how Rhode Island’s model created a nine-person advisory committee to help draft regulations around overdose prevention centers.
The committee in Rhode Island consists of:
- the state attorney general or their designee
- three medical representatives, with one specializing in addiction
- A current or former law enforcement officer
- a person with a substance use disorder
- someone working in overdose prevention
- someone who has suffered from an overdose or a family member of someone who died from an overdose
- a representative from the state’s league of cities and towns
DeGruy Kennedy said he also likes that Rhode Island’s legislation was endorsed by the American Medical Association. The Rhode Island centers will be required to provide “necessary health care professionals to prevent overdose” and will have referrals for counseling and medical treatments, according to the bill.
With the help of the advisory committee, the director of the Rhode Island public health department creates the regulations for the program. The sites must be approved by the city they are located in.
Colorado’s draft bill would also create a pilot program, but likely for longer than two years, Kennedy said.
“We have heard concerns from committee members about making sure that whatever we do is harmonious with the work that law enforcement is doing on distribution crimes in the city at large,” deGruy Kennedy said at the forum. “That voice on an advisory committee was something that we thought was a smart way to include law enforcement voices and cover the concerns that there could be unintended consequences with regards to crime and drug distribution in surrounding areas.”
Law enforcement members gave their perspective to the committee in early August during a three-hour discussion on the topic — the first indicator that the bill may be coming back.
During that meeting, Epps, who has said she supports working toward abolishing police, said she could support policing of drug distribution and dealing.
“I see a role — don’t tell anybody I said this — I see a role for law enforcement in dealing with … this crisis,” she said.
Epps was a prime sponsor of the bill that failed this year.
While Epps and other lawmakers who supported that bill seem to be in favor of the new effort, proponents would have to persuade skeptics in their own party — likely including the governor — to come on board. Another prominent skeptic is state Sen. Kyle Mullica, a Thornton Democrat who sits on the Opioid and Other Substance Abuse Disorders Study Committee.
Mullica cast one of the deciding votes shelving the 2023 overdose prevention centers bill, but then in August, on the interim committee, he also cast the deciding vote to allow the 2024 version to be drafted.
“I’ll be honest with you and transparent: I’m not convinced that this policy is the most effective policy for us to do,” he said during a committee hearing. “But I do believe that it’s a conversation that we should be having and I’m not afraid of that conversation — even if I do have concerns.”
Mullica said he wanted to join Epps, Priola and deGruy Kennedy in drafting the measure.
While Mullica said he’s not sure he will ever be able to support a bill allowing overdose-prevention centers, he said being part of the bill-drafting process will mean he can try to get some of his concerns addressed. That includes what he feels is a lack of data around overdose prevention centers, the fact that they’ve been used in cities with much denser populations than Denver and how to police around the sites.
The Opioid and Other Substance Use Disorders Study Committee will hear public comment on the 2024 draft on Sept. 27. Nonpartisan legislative staff will then have a week to make any changes and create a fiscal note before the full committee votes on whether to advance the bill to the Legislative Services Committee for further consideration.
If the Legislative Services Committee advances the bill, it would be introduced in January and go through the legislative process. If the Legislative Services Committee votes against advancing the measure, it could still be brought during next year’s lawmaking term.
The Democratic proponents of the proposal are unlikely to get any support from Republicans, who have been universally opposed to the idea in recent years.
Rep. Ryan Armagost, a Berthoud Republican on the Opioid and Other Substance Use Disorders Study Committee, said during the August committee hearing that he still thinks authorizing overdose prevention centers is a bad idea. “What might work in one city isn’t (necessarily) going to work throughout Colorado,” he told the committee before a vote to draft the 2024 bill was taken.
The overdose prevention centers measure was one of five drafts the interim committee decided to pursue in August. Support for drafting the other four measures — which would deal with opioid abuse prevention, harm reduction, treatment and recovery — was unanimous.
Colorado Sun staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.