A bill that would allow Colorado cities and counties to offer a place for people to use drugs under the supervision of a health professional faced its first committee test Wednesday.
House Bill 23-1202 allows localities to set up a site where people can use previously obtained controlled substance in a monitored setting.
Those sites are commonly referred to as safe injection sites, but advocates prefer the term "overdose prevention centers."
“It does not supply drugs by any means. And it also doesn't force any local government in a city to establish one of these sites in their communities,” said Rep. Jenny Willford, D-Northglenn.
Willford insists that these centers will help prevent overdoses so people can get the help they need, saying the state cannot adequately address the issue with a criminal justice solution alone.
Colorado has seen a significant increase in overdose deaths in recent years. Data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment shows 1,477 Coloradoans died from overdoses in 2020, a 38% increase from the previous year.
“We can't just wish people well and hope that they get well," Willford said. "We have to make sure that they have access to the treatment and the support that they need to get well."
Along with having medical staff on hand, the centers would provide clean needles, fentanyl testing strips for the drugs and harm reduction services, such as counseling and referrals to substance abuse disorder treatment.
Lisa Rayville knows the devastating effects of the overdose epidemic firsthand. She is the executive director of the Harm Reduction Action Center in Denver, which is the state’s largest syringe access program.
Rayville believes one of the country's biggest problems is that the drug supply is very unpredictable. People are unknowingly taking drugs that have been mixed with things like fentanyl, which is causing more accidental overdoses.
“People I know, love and serve are dying of preventable overdoses, and it doesn't have to be like this. That's why we're here fighting," Rayville said. "If it was your kid, you'd want us doing something about it."
Others argue these centers are not the solution. Opponents of the idea say it will lower property values in areas surrounding these centers, increase crime and enable drug use and addiction.
Commerce City Deputy Police Chief Greg Sadar testified against the bill at Wednesday’s committee hearing on behalf of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police. He told Denver7 that while the association wants to save lives, it cannot support a center that facilitates illegal drug use.
“When we run into a situation where there would be a facility, we're required to ignore the crimes that are going on. It's really difficult for me to get my officers to understand how they would have to ignore their oath,” Sadar said.
Last year, Commerce City one of the worst overdose events in Colorado history, where five people died from overdoses after taking what they thought was cocaine.
All Commerce City police officers carry Narcan kits in order to reverse an overdose. Sadar says the officers use the nasal spray once a month, on average, while paramedics in the area use the nasal spray much more frequently. Sadar doesn’t believe these centers will help reverse that trend for his officers.
“When we make it easier for people to complete that cycle of abuse, we're not helping them break, disrupt that cycle,” he said.
Former U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado Jason Dunn also opposes the idea, saying none of the evidence he's seen from communities that have established overdose prevention centers have proven that there is a long-term benefit. He also hasn’t seen any data to support the idea that these centers reduce drug usage or overdose deaths.
Instead, Dunn says these centers will have a negative impact on the neighborhoods.
“What you're going to have is a homeless population congregating around one of these sites, which will attract drug dealers, prostitution and violent crime. It has a serious negative impact on the community around it,” he said.
As the former U.S. attorney, Dunn vowed in 2018 and 2019 to use his civil and criminal powers to shut down any site like this in Colorado after Denver’s city council passed an ordinance in November 2018 that would create a supervised injection site under a two-year pilot program.
However, Denver’s ordinance is contingent on the state passing legislation allowing Colorado cities to create such sites.
“There's nothing in this proposed legislation that says using illegal drugs in that facility is no longer a violation of law, and I think, from a practical standpoint, if a municipality adopts then I assume they're going to tell their police force not to enforce drug laws,” Dunn said. “What you're going to have basically is a crime-free zone where anybody can do any drug of their choice and know that they can go there to do it because law enforcement won't prosecute him for being there.”
Denver7 asked Governor Jared Polis' office if he would support such a bill. A spokesperson issued the following statement, “The Governor is focused on saving Coloradans money, getting people help for substance use disorders, and ensuring that the scourge of fentanyl ends. He would be deeply concerned with any approach that would contribute to more drug use and lawlessness. The Governor was proud to sign legislation last year providing historic funding for research-based harm reduction strategies to be applied across Colorado coupled with more tools to crack down on drug dealers.”
The bill faced hours of committee testimony Wednesday.