Lawmakers, Denver City Council to grapple with controversial opioid crisis counter measure

Senate Bill would allow pilot supervised use site
Posted at 7:44 PM, Jan 17, 2018
and last updated 2018-01-17 21:44:14-05

DENVER -- It's one of the most controversial measures that lawmakers will grapple with at the State Legislature this session: A bill that would allow Denver to start a pilot supervised (drug) use site.

Proponents say the program will prevent diseases like HIV and Hep C, and curtail drug overdose deaths.

The proposal is part of an attempt to counter the growing opioid crisis in Colorado.

Overdose deaths

Numbers from the Colorado Harm Reduction Action Center show there were 11,456 total drug overdose deaths in Colorado from 2000 - 2016, and 3,650 opioid-related deaths.

In Denver, there were 174 overdose deaths in 2016. That's up from 129 the year prior.

Vancouver's experience

On Wednesday, members of the Denver City Council's Safety Committee received an update on the opioid crisis and on the "harm reduction method" of coping with it.

Council President Albus Brooks told committee members that there are 100 cities worldwide that use that method, more specifically, that have safe supervised use sites.

He cited Vancouver, British Columbia as an example.

He said the Canadian city started its program nearly 17 years ago, when it was dealing with 5 or 6 drug overdose deaths a day.

"There was skepticism initially," Brooks said, "but not now. Their data is clear. It's saving lives, and now they're trying to say, 'how do we dig deeper into the community in trying to get folks off these drugs?'" 

Denver's situation

"In a very magical world, there'd be no drugs," said Lisa Ravel, executive director of the Harm Reduction Action Center, a syringe exchange program on Colfax Avenue, located across the street from the Colorado State Capitol.

Evidence that it's not a magical world can be found in parks throughout Denver and along the Cherry Creek bike path in the form of used syringes.

Ravel told Denver7 that addicts shoot up in parks, alleys and in business restrooms.

She said they sometimes die in those locations and their bodies are often found by passersby.

"We want to bring people out of the public sphere and put them in a controlled environment, where it prevents HIV and Hepatitis C, promotes proper syringe disposal, decreases skin tissue infections and save people's lives in the event of an overdose," Ravel said. 

She added Denver already has an "unsanctioned supervised use site," in the public library.

She said that in 2017, the lives of 13 people, who overdosed in the restrooms at the central library, were saved when they were given a dose of Narcan.

Dr. William Burman, executive director of Denver Public Health, told committee members that it's not just an issue affecting adults.

"At anyone time, we have 4, 5 or 6 babies who are coming off addiction," he said.

Before Denver City Council can take any action, the state must make the first move.

Senate Bill 18-040 is a first attempt. In addition to creating a supervised injection facility pilot program, it would allow school districts to develop policies for the supply and administration of opiate antagonists, which are substances that interfere with the action of opiates.

Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, supports the proposal. She said it would provide immunity to the people who operate the pilot supervised use site, and that it will be in partnership with law enforcement.

"It will not keep law enforcement from doing their job," she said. "They will still stop drug deals and make sure the supply is reduced."

Herod said she and Rep. Brittany Pettersen are going to Vancouver on Thursday to learn more about that city's supervised use site program.

She said the plan is to stay a couple of days visiting the multiple use sites, and then to come back and share what they learn with fellow lawmakers.

If the legislature signs off on Senate Bill 40, Denver's City Council can then decide whether to proceed with a pilot program.

The earliest a program could get started in Denver would be in October.