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Will Denver Be the First U.S. City With a Safe Injection Site?

Denver City Council passed a bill that, if sanctioned by state law, would create a supervised injection site for intravenous drug users.

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Denver is one step closer to being the first U.S. city to pilot a supervised injection site for users of intravenous drugs. On Monday night, Denver City Council passed a bill to create the site, but the initiative is tied to partner legislation at the state level that would grant legal amnesty to illegal drug users at the site in terms of state law (the site can’t be created without that state legislation). While at least 13 other cities and states are pursuing similar initiatives, supervised injection sites are illegal under federal law.

The trailblazing initiative is inspired by more than 100 similar programs around the globe and would exist in a legal grey zone here in Colorado and in the United States. 

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Denver’s version, which passed with a 12-1 vote Monday night, allows for the creation of one registered supervised injection site—sometimes referred to as S.U.S. for safe use site—to be operated by a nonprofit organization, not the government. The site would be required to adhere to board of public health and environment rules and regulations. It would provide clean needles, fentanyl testing strips (fentanyl is a powerful opioid sometimes laced into heroin that is linked with massive spikes in overdose deaths), and opioid overdose prevention through drugs such as naloxone. Site operators would make available referrals to substance use disorder treatment, medical services, mental health services, and social services.

A group of stakeholders—including substance use treatment providers, law enforcement, and registered neighborhood organizations—would provide input as to where in Denver the site would best serve intravenous drug users. It would be required to be at least 1,000 feet from primary or secondary schools or daycares.

The creation of the site has been championed thus far in large part by City Councilmember Albus Brooks (District 9), and is supported by several progressive stakeholder groups, such as the Colorado Consortium on Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention, a task force created by Governor John Hickenlooper, and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless

Brooks said at recent Council meetings that the supervised use site aligns with Mayor Hancock’s three-prong plan to combat the opioid crisis in Denver, prevent substance misuse, expand access to treatment, and reduce harm for those who do use. Supervised use sites, according to Brooks and other advocates, help limit the spread of disease through dirty needles as well as overdoses, thanks to medical supervision and opioid-overdose reversal drugs.

“Tonight we act to save lives and repair families,” Brooks said Monday night. “When we view people simply as addicts we rob them of their humanity and it becomes easy for us to stigmatize their struggle and ignore their pain. This ordinance is not about ‘addicts’—it’s about our neighbors.”

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The creation of a supervised injection site is contingent on legislation clearing the state House, Senate, and then being signed by the governor. Likely, such a bill would be championed by state Senator-elect Brittany Petterson, (D-District 22), a vocal advocate for drug abuse prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and destigmatization. With the election of Jared Polis for governor and Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, the legislation needed to realize a supervised injection site in Denver has a much improved shot of passing in the next session.

The site’s most vocal opponent is City Councilmember Kevin Flynn (District 2), who voted against the bill, and has advocated instead for a community naloxone distribution program modeled after one in Salt Lake City.

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