In November, the Denver City Council approved a pilot supervised injection site for people suffering from opiate addiction. It would be the first in the United States, but others have existed and do exist in places such as Spain, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Canada, and Australia. Proponents of the concept cite low overdose rates, medical attention for those who need it, and the opportunity for outreach as the primary reasons that these sites are not only needed, but are effective in saving the lives of intravenous drug users and in lowering crime rates in general. However, even though Denver City Council approved this proposal, that does not necessarily mean the city will be hosting a site any time soon. The federal government is vocally opposed to the foundation, promotion, and implementation of a supervised injection site anywhere in our country, and there are a lot of other obstacles within the Denver city limits that will likely keep this project from moving forward too.
Why Denver Needs a Supervised Injection Site
In 2017, Denver experienced 201 drug related deaths, and that was more deaths than by vehicular accidents, the previous leading cause of accidental death within the city. As a result, the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment developed their Opioid Response Strategic Plan, which seeks to prevent substance use and misuse, improve access to treatment, and reduce harm in general through a harm reduction model. One of the things this Opioid Response Strategic Plan calls for in particular is that the department will seek to reduce barriers to a supervised injection site – and they are making some progress. Sadly, however, in 2018 even more people died of drug overdoses within Denver city limits, so although the department’s goals are moving forward and their ideas have even already been voted upon, the process is not moving fast enough to save some lives. For some, even if this idea does come to fruition, it will be far too late to help them.
There are supervised injection sites in 64 cities around the world and many have reported positive progress. Not only do these sites allow users to use in a sanitary and safe environment with medical staff ensuring their survival, but these facilities are also known to have reduced crime rates and disease in the areas they serve. There are many homeless individuals living on the streets of the Mile High City and although they make up just a small portion (10%) of the overdose deaths seen in Denver in 2018, a supervised injection site for those who do use opioids will also further allow community services to check in with these people to find out if they need help with their addictions or with anything else.
What Happened in Denver and Next Steps
Although numerous cities around the United States – such as Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, and New York – are considering and are moving forward with plans to open supervised injection sites, not one has officially opened quite yet. Denver’s City Council has thirteen members, and only one voted against this important bill. The next step will be a vote by the Colorado General Assembly in the next few months.
In 2017, city and state officials tried to pass several similar measures, but the idea failed because opponents feared that it would inspire criminal activity and create an area of heavy drug sales near the facility. But 2017 and 2018 differed greatly in that in 2017 Republicans controlled the state Senate, and in 2018, a transfer of power developed creating instead a Democrat controlled Senate and House, which continues today into 2019. As a result the initiative will likely pass this time around due to strong support by state Democratic leaders.
The next steps are to find a location, and Denver city leaders more or less avoided this topic leading up to the vote. The Harm Reduction Action Center, located in the middle of Denver and in an area where there is often rampant and public drug use, has offered to host the site. Currently, this organization runs a needle exchange program and does a great deal of outreach to both the homeless and the housed in the adjacent community. No public funds will be used for the site; no matter what location is chosen, it will be operated by a non-profit or other government entity that works with addicts, and it will have to be located more than 1000 feet from schools and daycare centers.
Unfortunately but certainly not surprisingly, there is a great deal of opposition to this plan. Locally in Denver, many residents fear that the opening of a supervised injection site will turn the city into a crime-filled, drug infested city in which it will be impossible to go to work or raise children without encountering addiction at every turn. However, this is truly just the opposite of what is intended by this measure; by giving the users a safe place to go, they will hopefully no longer be doing things like overdosing in the bathroom of the main branch of Denver Public Library, for example – something that has happened somewhat frequently in the past; there were six overdoses there in January 2017 alone and the library staff is now all trained on administering life saving Narcan as a result.
But there is also opposition from outside Denver city limits as well, and outside the state of Colorado, too. Federal officials have lauded Denver for taking steps to fight back against the opioid crisis, but hesitate when it comes to taking this giant next step. The opening of a supervised injection site would not comply with federal law that “prohibits the maintaining of any premises for the purpose of using any controlled substance.” Anyone breaking this law – in this case, anyone owning or operating a supervised injection site – would be subject to up to twenty years in jail and fines of up to $250,000. Even if the proposal ultimately passes in the Colorado General Assembly, there is a good chance that these potential punishments may be enough to entirely scare away anyone interested in helping make it a reality, unfortunately.
Only time will tell what will happen in this situation in Denver and elsewhere in the United States in the world, but it is one potential solution to saving the lives of people who are addicted to opioids. Certainly it would not save every user, and even with the educational outreach aspect, it will not get every user to seek treatment and quit. However, the fact that supervised injection sites offer a safe place for users to use and a place where they are medically supervised is important. Facilities like these do save lives, and each life is important. Every user has people who love them. Everyone deserves a chance to live. Hopefully, in time, communities will become more accepting of these locations, and its possible that any of the cities currently considering them – Denver, Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia – may actually make one of these sites a reality, and will start a trend for the greater good.
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