Supervised drug injection facilities face uphill fight at Colorado statehouse

3 min. read
Rep. Leslie Herod, left at lectern, and Rep. Brittany Pettersen at the Colorado State Capitol on Monday, Jan. 22. (Andrew Kenney/Denverite)

Rep. Leslie Herod, left at lectern, and Rep. Brittany Pettersen at the Colorado State Capitol on Monday, Jan. 22. (Andrew Kenney/Denverite)

Feb. 5 update: The State, Veterans, & Military Affairs Committee was scheduled to consider the bill today. It has postponed that consideration indefinitely.

Rep. Brittany Pettersen turned to her own story on Monday as she called for a new approach to drug addiction in Colorado.

"My mom is one of the statistics here in our state," the Democrat said at a press conference in the Capitol. "She became addicted to prescription opioids almost 30 years ago."

Standing alongside Rep. Leslie Herod, the state lawmaker said her colleagues should embrace a strategy known as harm reduction.  A bill in the statehouse would allow for the creation of supervised injection sites, where people could use injection drugs including heroin and Fentanyl under the supervision of medical professionals.

Pettersen said that this strategy could have helped her mother, who survived numerous overdoses and is in recovery today. "Denying them the opportunity to live and recover should not be an option for our state," she said.

Getting the sites legalized in Colorado will be difficult, though.

The bill that would allow them, SB18-40, is headed for a notoriously difficult committee on Feb. 5. Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a high-ranking Republican, has already expressed serious doubts.

“I don’t see much hope in this bill,” he told CBS4. “I struggle with any aspect that tries to create a safe haven so you can do illegal activities which actually harm people.”

Republicans hold the majority in the committee. Neither of the other two Republicans returned calls for comment on the bill on Monday. Representatives for both Democrats said they were inclined to support the bill.

Still, Denver city officials have been working with state lawmakers to build support for the idea. Pettersen and Herod have both visited Vancouver, where the sites are legal, as have Denver city staff, Denver police officials and Council President Albus Brooks.

"I think there was a little bit of concern" about the committee, Herod said. "That's not going to deter us. We will work in a bipartisan way."

She added that the bill may need to be updated, or a new bill could be introduced.

More on the idea:

The central idea is that people with addictions are much less likely to die or hurt themselves if they can use drugs in a monitored environment with access to clean needles and supplies.

"We heard pretty horrific stories of active users (in Vancouver), before they had knowledge of the sites," Herod said. "They would be in the back alleyways getting water out of dirty puddles to shoot up with."

The lawmakers cited statistics from Insite, a facility in Vancouver that has recorded more than 3.6 million visitors without a death since it was established in 2003.

The current bill would only allow for supervised injection in Denver. City officials would still have to approve the idea, too. A likely candidate for the site would be the Harm Reduction Action center on Colfax Avenue.

"We're not trying to make this legal," Pettersen said. Police efforts to crack down on suppliers could and should continue, Herod said.

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