DENVER – Federal officials in Colorado on Tuesday blasted the Denver City Council’s recent passage of a supervised injection facility pilot project, saying such facilities only “normalize serious drug use” and calling into question their overall effectiveness in combatting drug addiction.
In a joint statement, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Colorado and the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Denver Field Office laid out the reasons why they don’t support the pilot project, which will still need approval from the state General Assembly before the project can get underway.
The Denver City Council passed the measure last week in a 12-1 vote. It allows for a supervised injection site to operate for two years at which intravenous drug users would be able to use under supervision and where trained staff can administer anti-overdose medications if necessary. It comes after more than 1,000 people died of drug overdoses last year in Colorado.
In Tuesday’s statement, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and DEA say there are three reasons why they don’t believe the pilot should ever gain footing.
First, they say, operating such sites is illegal under federal law. The Denver City Council and Mayor Michael Hancock have acknowledged that is the case. Federal officials note that anyone who violates a section of U.S. Code that prohibits anyone from maintaining premises for using controlled substances faces property forfeiture, up to $250,000 in fines and up to 20 years in jail.
In the release, federal officials also said there was “no evidence” that safe injection sites “actually reduce the number of drug-related deaths or make it more likely that users will seek help for their addiction or mental health issues.”
They said that since the injection sites aren’t only limited to opioid and heroin users, people who inject meth, cocaine and other drugs can also use the facilities but are more prone to overdose because there is not a reversal antidote for them, like there is for opioids – which can be reversed by naloxone or its brand name, Narcan.
Third, the feds argued in their release that safe injection sites “actually increase public safety risks.”
“Just like so-called crack houses, these facilities will attract drug dealers, sexual predators, and other criminals, ultimately destroying the surrounding community,” the release said. “More importantly, the government-sanctioned operation of these facilities serves only to normalize serious drug usage – teaching adults and children alike that so-called ‘safe’ drug usage is somehow appropriate or can actually be done ‘safely.’ The type of drug use contemplated here is always life-threatening behavior.”
Despite their strong opinions on why safe injection sites aren’t a good solution for curbing illegal drug use, the release added that federal officials weren’t overall opposed to efforts to stop drug addiction in Colorado.
“Finally, we note that nothing in this statement should be read as casting aspersion on the laudable motives of those seeking to improve our communities and free Coloradans from the scourge of drug addiction,” the release said.
Councilman Brooks responds to feds
But Denver Councilman Albus Brooks, the main proponent behind the safe injection site pilot, immediately took note of the language used by federal officials.
“While we recognize the role of the federal government, we cannot wait for federal action while the death toll rises,” Brooks said in a statement. “These people are not simply addicts. They are our neighbors, friends, and family members who are experiencing addiction.”
Brooks also argued that since the city is designated as a local public health department though the city’s Department of Public Health and Environment that it has the authority to address the opioid emergency in Denver.
“Extensive research and global precedent demonstrate that supervised use sites save lives,” Brooks said. “Choosing not to save the lives of our neighbors is an injustice that threatens to destabilize the very foundation of our society. This is a piece of a larger plan to address this epidemic, and as leaders we know that saving lives takes precedent over politics. Now is the time to act.”
There is some precedent involving federal law and drug use in Colorado because of the legalization of marijuana here and the Department of Justice’s repealing of the Cole Memo at the beginning of 2018. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Colorado has said since the rule was repealed that it would not use resources to investigate and prosecute extraneous marijuana cases, though crackdown on black market marijuana has continued.
Still, the stances from the feds and Brooks on the issue are unlikely to change as the debate over the injection sites continues into the 2019 legislative session, but the U.S. Attorney’s Office and DEA made clear Tuesday they had no plans to budge.
“These efforts must comply with federal law,” they wrote. “Efforts that do not comply with federal law risk action by the U.S. Attorney’s Office using any and all federal remedies available.”