DENVER — Denver City Councilman Albus Brooks said he wants to save lives, and that's why he introduced a bill to approve a supervised use site pilot project, which allows drug addicts to shoot up under supervision.
If they overdose, trained staff could administer Narcan nasal spray, a medication used to block the effects of opioids.
Happening tonight: the @DenCityCouncil will hold a final vote on a proposal for a safe injection site for drug users. It would need state approval to go into effect, though. What do you think? @DenverChannel
— Meghan Lopez (@Meghan_Lopez) November 26, 2018
State approval needed
The Denver City Council will weigh in on Brooks' proposal during its regular meeting on Monday.
Brooks said Denver’s project will only go forward if state lawmakers give it the OK.
A bipartisan bill to allow for a pilot project in Denver failed in the Senate during the last legislative session.
With Democrats now in control of both chambers, Brooks said he believes there will be a different outcome in the upcoming session.
Understanding the opioids health crisis
"We're in a health crisis," Brooks said. "We had over 1,000 individuals die from drug overdoses in Colorado last year, and 201 in Denver.”
The councilman’s proposal would allow one supervised use site, which would be operated by a nonprofit or government entity that serves people who use drugs.
He said it can’t operate any closer than 1,000 feet from a school or daycare center, and must remain in compliance with Colorado's Board of Public Health and Environment rules and regulations.
The site must also provide syringe access, Fentanyl testing strips, overdose prevention and referrals for substance use disorder treatment, as well as medical, mental health and social services.
Opposition to supervised use sites
Not everybody is on board with this idea. It's a common rebuttal to hear about how these sites could promote drug use.
Last February, Daniel Petruska, a former heroin addict, now CEO of Teen Challenge of the Rocky Mountains, told Denver7’s Politics Unplugged, “Would I be getting into a vehicle in Aurora and driving to Denver six, seven or eight times a day if I was a heroin addict? Probably not.”
He said drug users might be more inclined to hang around a supervised use site because there would be more drugs in the area.
Approaching the idea with strategy
Councilman Brooks said that the city is being “very strategic” and is not trying to reach every addict in the Denver Metro area.
“We know where our users are,” he said. “They’re right in the center of Denver. They’re right near Civic Center. They’re right near the library. They’re right near the river.”
He said this plan focuses on “reducing harm,” not solving the drug addiction problem.
“I think this problem is much bigger than a safe use site,” he said. “We have treatment beds that aren’t open. We have barriers to treatment, and so this is one step along a journey to help address a big, big issue.”
Support for these sites
“I can tell you that there is not a single addict out there that wants to die,” said Kelly Reed, a former addict, who now works with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
She helps peers cope with drug addiction, homeless and mental health issues.
Reed, who has been in recovery for five years, said she has lost 30 friends to drug overdoses. She said she believes a supervised use site would have given them a chance to recover from their addictions.
“It will change lives,” she said.
Reed also countered claims that a supervised site would encourage drug use.
“People are going to inject their drugs with or without supervised sites,” she said. “But with supervised sites, you’ll have somebody trained on site to administer Narcan immediately and reverse an overdose.”
Brooks said this type of model, one that reduces harm, is medically proven, with more than 20 years of research.
He said if stigmatism and criminalization worked around drug addiction, the problem would have been solved a long time ago.
“It failed,” he said. “So, this is a new focus for us. I believe in the next five years, when this starts happening in cities like Los Angeles, Denver, New York and Seattle, people are going to say, ‘I can’t believe we argued over that. I can’t believe it was such a tough issue.’”
How to fund one of these sites?
When asked about how a supervised use site would work financially, Brooks said tax money will not be used for the pilot project.
“This will be a privately funded model, funded by a nonprofit in town,” he said. “I think once the concept has been proven after two years, it says in the ordinance we can look at some public funding, but right now this will remain privately funded.”