Denver’s ready to debate safe heroin injection, but it needs the state’s support, too

Denver officials laid the groundwork for a conversation that could bring one of the first supervised sites where people can inject drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine.
4 min. read
A needle disposal box on the Cherry Creek Trail at Colfax Avenue. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) heroin; needles; syringe; opioid crisis; denver; denverite; colorado; kevinjbeaty;

City officials on Wednesday laid the groundwork for a conversation that could bring to Denver one of the first supervised sites where people can inject drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine.

Council President Albus Brooks has led the charge for Denver to consider such a site. Meanwhile, state legislators are working on a necessary change to state law -- but it's unclear whether that will pass.

On Wednesday, council members and health officials talked about what will have to happen.

Why it matters:

In Colorado, drug overdoses killed more people in 2016 than car crashes -- about 900 in all, more than half of which were related to opioids such as heroin, according to CPR. The number of heroin users nationwide increased by 135 percent from 2002 to 2016, per CNN.

About 10 percent of people booked into Denver's jails have an opioid addiction, according to Dr. Bill Burman, director of Denver Health. At any one time, the hospital has up to a half-dozen newborn babies who were born with addictions.

How it works:

Supervised injection sites are part of a "harm reduction" strategy. The idea is that the sites can reduce the danger of such drugs by ensuring people have clean needles and other supplies; fast medical attention; and access to services that can help them deal with addiction.

In Vancouver, the Insite facility reported that staff intervened in nearly 1,800 overdoses in 2016. There have been no deaths at the facility, according to its operator.

The questions in Denver:

Council President Albus Brooks and city staff have visited Vancouver. On Wednesday, they talked about some of their findings.

"We were blown away by the statistics of these safe-use sites," Brooks said. The visit raised two questions: "Why aren't we doing this in the United States of America? And, No. 2, is this even possible?"

However, opening such a site would require a change to state law, officials said. (The sites remain illegal under federal law, but, you know, so is marijuana.)

"You do need a state law. You need to make sure that workers are able to be there in the facility and not risk prosecution or jail," said state Rep. Leslie Herod, who has pushed for such a law.

What's next at the state level:

A bipartisan group of state lawmakers -- Democratic Sen. Cheri Jahn and Rep. Jonathan Singer, plus Republican Sen. Kent Lambert -- recently introduced a bill, SB18-040, that would allow Denver to create a "supervised injection facility pilot program."

(It also would grant new protections for syringe exchanges, and it would allow schools to obtain rescue drugs like Narcan.)

The bill has been assigned to the Senate State, Veterans & Military Affairs Committee. That's occasionally referred to as a "kill" committee -- because it kills bills.

But Herod still has hope, according to Colorado Democrats spokesman Dean Toda. "I’m assured by Rep. Herod that it hasn’t been assigned there in order to kill it," he said.

And for the city:

Denver leaders' consideration of supervised injection sites is "contingent" on state legislators open the door, according to Brooks. And even if state law changes, it's unclear whether Mayor Michael Hancock would support safe injection sites in Denver. (Hancock has veto power over changes to city law.)

"We haven't taken a position, as the administration, on supervised injection facilities," said Evan Dreyer, deputy chief of staff for the mayor. "We have taken a position that we are experiencing one of the worst public health crises in America today."

He said that it would be important to ask questions about how such a program would work in Denver. It's worth asking, he said, whether it would change the use of drugs in public places.

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