His group's first effort failed in 1997, blocked by what was then a Republican-controlled state legislature, so he tried again in 1998. That bill made it through the Senate but hit a roadblock in the House: the conservative Committee on Health, Environment, Welfare and Institutions.

Simons describes the hearing before that committee as "tearjerking and harrowing." Among those who testified in favor of the bill were state health officials, doctors, nurses and a woman who had gotten HIV from her former fiancé, who was a secret injection drug user.

But it was Bill Ritter, then Denver's district attorney, who was the star witness. In an even, rational tone clearly audible on a tape recording of the hearing, Ritter told the committee how, as a new district attorney in 1993, he was asked not to prosecute people participating in needle exchange programs. He'd refused, he said, but his interest was piqued. For four and a half years, he studied the topic, even visiting a program in Chicago. There, he stood in a van for hours and watched as drug users traded dirty needles for clean ones and chatted with outreach workers. He also spoke with a state attorney who told him the police supported the effort because it decreased the likelihood that they'd get stuck with a dirty needle while searching someone.

Andrew McClure sits on the Denver Drug Strategy Commission.
Andrew McClure sits on the Denver Drug Strategy Commission.
Monique Whalen runs a nonprofit that educates drug users.
Monique Whalen runs a nonprofit that educates drug users.

Ritter was firm on one point, though: As long as needle exchange programs were illegal in Colorado, he'd prosecute their participants. That said, he told the committee members they had a chance to change that, and to change lives.

"I don't see a downside," he said. "I don't see that it dilutes our message if we stay strong on the message. I don't see that people who participate in needle exchange programs started their drug use — their heroin use, specifically — because a needle exchange program existed. I just don't see that." (For more of Ritter's testimony, log on to the Latest Word blog at westword.com.)

But other law-enforcement officials did. Several testified against the bill, suggesting that the availability of free needles would attract riffraff and make it tough for police officers to do their jobs. And in the end, the committee, anchored by Republicans, killed the bill on a 7-4 party-line vote.

Simons was disappointed but not surprised. "There was no way we were going to get through that committee," he says. "We could have had babies dying in the front row and that committee would have been as hard-hearted as they were." Simons, who has since moved out of Colorado, partly blames the political climate at the time.

Things should be different today, he and other advocates say. There's eleven more years' worth of research and a new president who has said he supports lifting the ban on using federal funds for needle exchange. Democrats run the state legislature, and it's not an election year. Most important, Ritter is now governor.

That last development is what prompted Monique Whalen to start the Public Health Awareness Task Force in 2007. Whalen runs a small nonprofit in Denver called the Drop-In Center that educates injection drug users.

She says she's frustrated that she can teach drug users about the importance of clean needles until they're encyclopedia-grade experts — but she can't actually give them any because it's illegal. Sometimes, she adds, "I feel like what we do is almost pointless."

So when Ritter got elected, Whalen — who has worked on aboveground syringe exchange programs in Europe and the U.S. but is not affiliated with USED — and other public health folks set out to change that. For two years, they worked toward drafting legislation that would legalize syringe exchange, and last fall they hired a lobbyist: Jeff Thormodsgaard of Mendez, Steadman & Associates in Denver.

Thormodsgaard says he worked for months with the governor's staff to craft a bill that wasn't too risky or too broad and would provide for local control. Representative Claire Levy, a Democrat from Boulder, signed on to be the sponsor.

But in early January, just days after the start of the 2009 legislative session, two top officials in the state Department of Public Health and Environment — executive director Jim Martin and chief medical officer Ned Calonge — said they wouldn't support the effort. Given the promise of opposition — and the fear of a veto from Ritter — those behind the bill decided to pull it.

"I felt that even though it's a very good idea and good policy, I didn't want to put legislation out there that wasn't going to be signed into law," Levy says. "It would be a waste of resources."

Calonge says the bill was last-minute and contained too many unanswered questions, including how to ensure that syringe exchange programs wouldn't "invite other criminal activities from around the edges." He says he was bothered by the fact that those pushing the bill hadn't gotten the go-ahead from law enforcement, something Thormodsgaard says he was working on.

The governor's spokesman, Evan Dreyer, deflected several inquiries from Westword about Ritter's position, referring all questions to the public health department.

"I don't speak for the governor," Calonge says. "I don't want to get in trouble." But he will say this of Ritter: "Our advice was that this was not ready for prime time, and given our other priorities, we needed to address the economy and jobs. Had he disagreed, had he wanted us to push this forward, we would have taken a different tack."

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