By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
As long as lawmakers and bureaucrats continue to fumble with Colorado's drug paraphernalia laws, USED will continue its work underground in Denver.
Soon after they began exchanging syringes in early 2008, USED's four original members realized the demand was greater than their capacity. Within months, they added four more members. They have a few things in common, like their ages — late twenties or early thirties — and chosen professions, since many work for liberal-leaning nonprofits. But the members joined the group for different reasons. A few, like Beth, are former injection drug users. The rest are not. Some are compelled by the statistics and the logic. Others are drawn in by the users and their stories.
Jessi, a 29-year-old who works for a nonprofit, says she's never even seen heroin. She joined USED because it feels like an organic and effective way to make sure the needs of everyone, even junkies cast aside by society, are met.
"There are reasons people got addicted, and they're really terrible reasons," she says. "The more you get let in to their lives...it starts to become very clear how people got where they're at, and it's not always their fault."
"Every user is somebody's child," Beth says. "They're somebody's brother and sister. They're not just a user. They had lives once. They have talents and dreams and things to offer. They're people."
To that end, USED also hands out other items aside from syringes. Since diseases and bacteria can also be transmitted through other paraphernalia, they distribute five-milliliter tubes of clean water to mix with dry drugs and clean metal soda caps in which to cook the mixture. They give out new tourniquets and tiny sterile cotton balls to use as filters, as well as alcohol pads to sterilize the injection site.
Most Denver drug users inject heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine. Depending on their choice, they could inject anywhere from two to ten times a day. USED recommends they use a clean needle each time.
It's legal in Colorado to buy syringes at pharmacies, but actually doing so is often complicated and unsuccessful. A 1999 study by CU's Koester showed that metro-area pharmacists were hesitant to sell to injection drug users because they worried about encouraging drug use. Plus, Beth says, even though it's legal to buy needles, it's illegal to possess them with the intent to inject a controlled substance. Once users leave the pharmacy, there's a chance they could get arrested.
That's a chance many junkies aren't willing to take. But the members of USED are. They believe that if they were arrested and prosecuted, they'd be able to show that the good they're doing outweighs the fact that exchanging needles is against the law.
"We're literally saving people's lives," says Jordan, a 28-year-old member who does social justice work and has never used IV drugs. "Really, literally. Not like saving their lives in a dull, these-people-will-turn-over-a-leaf-and-find-Jesus or something way, but like, we're saving their lives in that we could really prevent them from getting HIV."
When statewide efforts to legalize syringe exchange failed this winter, advocates turned their attention toward the City of Denver. And Andrew McClure, a tall 26-year-old with dreadlocks and arms wrapped with tattoos, took the lead.
McClure sits on the Denver Drug Strategy Commission, a 27-member board that advises Mayor John Hickenlooper on drug-related policy. In late February, the commission voted 16-1 to recommend to the mayor that Denver look into starting a pilot needle exchange program.
McClure proposed the vote. Like Beth and Simons, he's a former heroin user.
For him, it started with marijuana when he was eleven. "The first time I smoked weed, I loved it," he says. "And something just happened. I believe that I reacted abnormally to it, because it set off this chain reaction of always needing more."
McClure's family had recently moved from Five Points to suburban Greenwood Village to escape growing street violence, and he was having a hard time adjusting. By thirteen, he was drinking, doing meth and taking acid. His straitlaced parents didn't understand his drug use, and it caused turmoil at home. So McClure began sleeping on the streets and eventually left home for good, traveling around the country following bands and playing music. At eighteen, he ended up in San Francisco, where he put a needle in his arm for the first time.
"It was like I found home," he says. "Like I'd lost home when I was a teenager because I couldn't be there, and the first time I did heroin on the beach in San Francisco, it was like I started sweating and I puked and I found home, and I just wanted to stay right there forever, just like that first time I got high. So I chased that from there on out."
The chase, however, had devastating consequences. McClure grew sickly thin, and in his early twenties, he suffered a stroke and barely survived a bout of endocarditis, a heart infection caused by bacteria from dirty needles. He was beaten up, arrested, and revived by hospital staff at least once.
At some point, he also contracted hepatitis C. He thinks it was in San Francisco, soon after he started using. He was with a small group of people; they had heroin and a needle, but they also had full-blown hepatitis. McClure says they drove around for two hours looking for the city's needle exchange but couldn't find it. He struggled with what to do, he says, but in the end, he decided he needed to get high. "It wasn't a question of saying no," he says. "It was, 'Fuck, all right.'"