Colorado lawmakers last tackled the legalities of syringe exchange -- the topic of this week's feature "Ahead of the Needle" -- eleven years ago, when they tried to change the state law prohibiting it. They failed. But not before Governor Bill Ritter, then Denver's district attorney, weighed in.
On February 4, 1998, Ritter passionately testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in favor of the bill, which would have allowed needle-exchange volunteers and participating drug users to exchange drug user's dirty needles for clean ones, and help stop the spread of diseases such as HIV.
In fact, Ritter testified twice: First before the Senate committee, and subsequently before the House Committee on Health, Environment, Welfare and Institutions, which ended up killing the bill. He told both committees the same thing: That he unequivocally supported needle exchange. But recently he's been silent on the issue.
When asked multiple times recently for Ritter's opinion, the governor's spokesman declined to give it, leaving advocates to wonder whether their one-time champion had changed his mind.
He's not the only one who appears to have changed his mind. The Department of Health and Environment, which backed the measure in 1998, opposed an effort to propose similar legislation this year. Officials said the bill was "not ready for prime time," and suggested lawmakers focus on more pressing issues, such as the economy.
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Read excerpts from Ritter's 1998 testimony below. Or listen to it
. Read this week's feature, about underground needle exchange in Denver, at westword.com/news.
"I come to you in favor of the needle exchange program as it's outlined ... for several reasons, but primarily because I think it is health issue.
I am a law enforcement officer and I've been involved in criminal prosecution since 1981. ... This isn't an issue that came easily to me. ... I was first approached when I became the district attorney of Denver in 1993 to not prosecute drug paraphernalia cases that came to us where individuals were involved in needle exchange programs and to do that, really, in contradiction to the law that's presently on the books. And I refused to do so because I don't think it's up to me as a prosecutor to select which laws I enforce and which ones I don't.
... But because I had been approached, I began to study the issue. And I think it's fair to say that I've studied it over a four and a half-year period. I've read the literature that (bill sponsor) Senator (Dottie) Wham referred to, and you can read literature that both supports, and other literature that does not support, needle exchange programs. And so it's a fairly confusing topic.
One of the things I did to sort of resolve this confusion in my mind was to visit a needle exchange program that's operating in Chicago, Illinois. And it operates under an exemption in their statute that involves research. It's been in operation for several years. And I actually visited the program and stood in a van where they were exchanging needles with individuals who came bringing dirty needles in and giving them clean needles.
I did that for several hours and then spent the next day with the individual who's the director of that program and the state's attorney who supports the needle exchange program. ... She represented to me that she believed the police department favored the needle exchange program that was operating in Chicago. And we had a dialogue about why that was.
... Those of us in law enforcement who, I think, have looked at this issue do have concerns about what this might do to heroin use, what this might do to injecting drug use in our community, and I think it's a right concern. But just my experience, both as a prosecutor and my visiting that program, leads me to believe the following things. ... The existence of a needle exchange program does not alter the community's message. I think I, as the chief law enforcement officer in Denver, can be strongly against drug usage and be strongly against any kind of legalization of drugs or decriminalization of drugs, and still support the existence of a needle exchange program.
And the reason for that is because I don't think the existence or the non-existence of a program impacts those who initiate their use.
... I don't think that we send a message with respect to what a community thinks about drug usage by having a needle exchange program in place that exists there for individuals who are, in fact, using and who are, in fact, a health risk to their sexual partners, a health risk to the children of their sexual partners and represent a health risk to other members of the community.
The way that this bill is set up ... answers the questions that law enforcement may have about it. I think setting it up in terms of local control is extremely important. And that gives jurisdictions the decision to have a program or not have a program.
... It wouldn't be a surprise to anybody here that typically the interaction that law enforcement has with people who are committing the offense of drug usage or the possession of drug paraphernalia, that's going to be a negative experience for those individuals. And rightly it should be. They're committing a violation against the law. But to have a person in the position of a needle exchange program who is exchanging these needles, telling these individuals, 'Hey, if you're ready to stop, this is the treatment program. This is the thing you can do to get off of this,' and to, I think, over time see that there actually are individuals who opt for that, that's a positive thing for a community.
We have a drug court in Denver. And that drug court has about, on average, a little less than 2,000 cases per year. ... We do everything we can with respect to users and abusers to expose them to treatment opportunities. Having said that, we probably still only touch twenty-five percent of all individuals who are drug users ... And I think that again, from the standpoint of the protection of the public's health, if you look at a needle exchange program ... they do have an opportunity that's in a non-law enforcement context to have a treatment exposure for the individual.
... Standing in that van in Cook County and seeing individuals coming in, we were in a neighborhood that is fairly Puerto Rican from the perspective of its demographics. And what we saw were 42-, 45-, 46-, 47-year-old Puerto Rican heroin addicts who were coming in, who didn't initiate their drug use because there was a needle exchange program in existence. There wasn't at the time. They did it because it was part of a culture, I believe, or something that related to perhaps other types of dysfunctions that they or the neighborhood had. But the fact of the matter is that each of those people were given clean needles, and so they're going to be using clean needles.
... They did study a park in that area and they studied it from the perspective of, are we taking dirty needles out of the area? And they ... showed that over the existence of the needle exchange program, the number of dirty needles that were showing up in the park grew less and less and less and less until it tabled out to just three or four dirty needles. And this was a park that had a significant problem unlike anything we know in Denver. So I think there is that added part of it that you have to consider, that there is a benefit to society to take dirty needles off the street.
... In looking at all of those reasons, it does seem to me that ... we're not going to, I think, alter our message that drug usage is wrong."