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Push to approve 'supervised' drug use site is personal for one Colorado lawmaker

Lawmakers visit supervised use sites in Vancouver
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Posted at 10:51 PM, Jan 22, 2018
and last updated 2018-01-23 02:11:29-05

DENVER -- Will it save lives or encourage drug use?

That's one of the major questions lawmakers will grapple with next month, when they begin debate on a proposal to allow a pilot, supervised (drug) use site program in Colorado.

Two state lawmakers who support the proposal traveled to Vancouver, British Columbia over the weekend, to see visit the supervised use sites in that city.

Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, and Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, told reporters that it's not just about having medical professionals on site to insure that users don't overdose. 

"It's about having access to health care, to detox, to screening and referrals, for those who are ready to move toward recovery," Pettersen said.

Personal fight

For the Lakewood democrat, the push for a supervised site in Colorado is personal.

"My mom became addicted to opioids almost 30 years ago," she said. "She struggled with back pain and was significantly over-prescribed."

Pettersen said her mom became "wildly addicted," and that her "whole life spiraled."

"Her priorities weren't being a mom," she said. "It wasn't about her life, it was about filling a need and addiction."

Pettersen said that once her mom's pain medications were stopped, she switched to heroin.

"She overdosed three times in one day.  She was found not breathing.  The last time, I had to wait to see if my mom was still alive when I called the hospital."

"I finally have my mom back"

Pettersen said her mom is sober now, after getting the help she needed through an "involuntary commitment process" via the courts.

"I finally have my mom back," she said. "Now, when I see people on the street who are addicted to heroin or phentanyl, I see my mom and I wonder what their stories are."

When asked about opposition to the supervised site proposal, Pettersen replied, "Some people say this is sending the wrong message. I couldn't disagree more. (Addicts) are going to use regardless of whether this pilot exists. This is about insuring that we keep them alive today, that we bring them out of the shadows and in front of health professionals, and that we give them a spectrum of treatment."

She added, "I understand that people feel uncomfortable, but I think it's important that we keep an open mind in this crisis, and look at every option that we have."

Current efforts not enough

Rep. Herod said the current fight against the opioid crisis isn't working.

"Opioid overdoses are now the number one cause of accidental death for people under the age of 55 in the U.S.," she said, adding that those who are addicted, "don't want to die."

"We have to remember that they have family, they have friends and they have dreams," she said.

Vancouver is a model

Regarding their trip to Vancouver, Herod said that the InSite program in the Canadian city has had nearly 4 million visits since it began in 2003.

"They have reported 'zero' deaths," she said. "They eliminated the need for people who are struggling with addiction to use bathrooms, alley ways and libraries, and created safer places for them to go, and more importantly, it helped connect people to the services they need."

Herod reiterated that law enforcement is a big part of the equation

"We talked to one of the commanders there," she said, "and he told us that if you have an addiction problem, you must have safe use sites, harm reduction sites.  You cannot sweep it under the rug."

She said law enforcement will continue to try to curtail drug dealing and the influx of illegal drugs into Colorado.  She said the emphasis should be on drug dealers, not users.

"I will tell you that any stigma that's associated with this cannot influence our ability to shape good public policy," she said. "We know this is a public health crisis and we need to address it as such."

Fentanyl Abuse

Herod told Denver7 that Vancouver authorities expressed concern about fentanyl abuse becoming a big problem in their city.  She added that's something we're starting to see in Denver too.

"It's very problematic," she said. "We have to be ahead of the curve on this.  People will die."

Herod said she saw people who use drugs on the street in Vancouver, but also saw people in recovery "and the promise that has."

"That was overriding," she added.

Senate Bill 18-040 will be heard in Senate's State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee on February 5.