McClure, who's been sober since 2005 and now works with homeless youth, has since "cleared" hepatitis C on his own, which the CDC says happens in 15 to 25 percent of cases. But there is no medical cure or vaccine. Health experts estimate that 76,000 Coloradans, many of them injection drug users, are infected. That's seventeen times the number of Coloradans with AIDS.

McClure has signed on to work with other commission members and advocates to hammer out the details of what a pilot Denver needle exchange program would look like, a model they will eventually present to the mayor. Ideally, he says, it would have a fixed site as well as a van that could travel to different neighborhoods. Volunteers and participants would have photo ID cards allowing them to carry clean syringes that they could show to the cops, and he estimates they could serve up to 1,000 people in the first two years.

But in order for that to happen, they first need to untangle some confusing state laws and city ordinances and to get law enforcement on board.

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.

Denver police lieutenant Pete Conner also sits on the city's Drug Strategy Commission. He was one of two members to abstain from the pilot-program vote. Conner says he didn't have enough information to vote it up or down. One of his chief concerns was Ritter's apparent change of position: "This is a governor that was once in favor of it as a DA, and now he's not. I didn't know why."

As for Denver's current DA, Mitch Morrissey, spokeswoman Lynn Kimbrough says he hasn't been directly involved in recent discussions about needle exchange. Morrissey must uphold state law, Kimbrough explains, and that currently prohibits such activity. "Denver's district attorney cannot selectively choose which of the laws he's going to enforce and which laws he's not going to enforce," she says.

Advocates figure that if they can get Hickenlooper on board, other government officials will follow.

But the mayor hasn't yet made up his mind. Commission chairman Jamie Van Leeuwen, of the Denver Department of Human Services, says Hickenlooper's office has been "unbelievably supportive" of efforts to examine the issue and has asked for more specifics, which the commission is likely to deliver in the next few months. Spokeswoman Sue Cobb says the mayor "looks forward to learning more about the commission's analysis and reviewing its supporting data and research."

Beth hopes Hickenlooper sees it their way.

"It's our last chance," she says. "If we don't get a pilot program in Denver, if we don't get the mayor's support...I don't know if it'll ever happen."

She and other USED members think Denver-specific data will be key in convincing lawmakers that a program is needed here. So for several months, they've been silently collecting it. In December 2008, USED gave out 1,292 clean syringes, which means it collected about the same number of dirty ones, since they typically exchange on a one-to-one, clean-to-dirty basis. (They take the dirties to a local facility, where they're incinerated.) In January, they gave out 1,349, and in February, they distributed 1,670.

If they keep up that pace for a year, they'll exchange close to 16,000 needles annually, less than half of Boulder's volume.

But that's pretty good, considering their constraints. For starters, USED doesn't have much money. Last year, the group got a $4,500 grant from the North American Syringe Exchange Network, which they use to buy clean needles and other supplies. But that cash is running low, and they don't know where their next pot of money will come from. They're also small; they have just a tenth of the number of volunteers that the Boulder County program does. And the need in Denver is arguably greater. According to state data, there are 252 people with HIV in Boulder County and 3,654 in Denver County. Nearly 17 percent of those cases can be traced to injection drug use.

On the streets, those numbers turn into faces, and that's what will keep Beth and other members of USED going.

After exchanging syringes with the young man and woman in the SUV, Beth and Lynne walk a few blocks and sit down under the shade of a tree. A few minutes later, their phone rings. It's one of their most frequent clients; he wants to hop a bus and meet them in half an hour.

He's a white man in his thirties, wearing a sweater and a baseball hat. He meets them on a corner, and as Lynne watches the street, Beth exchanges one bag for another. She asks him how he's doing, and he opens up about the trouble he's had finding an apartment. He keeps getting turned down because his criminal record shows an arrest for a drug crime he was never charged with. His current living situation is no good, either.

Another cop car rolls by, and the three decide to walk and talk. The man tells them about how he and his roommates let another user stay with them because he had a good drug connect with better shit. But the situation became a hassle; the kid invited tons of people over, calling attention to the apartment. Once, he stole everybody's cell phones.

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