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Syringe exchange: New law allowing participants to carry needles doesn't always work

Trained volunteers conduct a needle exchange in 2012.
Trained volunteers conduct a needle exchange in 2012.

In February 2012, the Harm Reduction Action Center, Denver's biggest needle exchange program, began distributing clean syringes under a 2010 state law that made such transactions legal. In November 2012, the program discovered that an old city ordinance allowed needle-exchange participants to legally carry syringes, exempting them from the laws that prohibit drug paraphernalia possession. And in May 2013, a new state law extended those protections statewide.

But the staff at the center say the laws aren't working as well as they could.

See also: Syringe exchange: Denver City Council lifts 1,000-foot school buffer

Participants in the Harm Reduction Action Center's needle exchange program are issued cards that identify them as participants and list the state law that allows them to carry drug paraphernalia "obtained from the Harm Reduction Action Center to reduce the spread of HIV and other blood-borne pathogens." The cards are good for one year at a time.

But some participants report that they're still getting in trouble for carrying syringes, says center director Lisa Raville. The most common situation occurs when a person is arrested on a warrant and taken to jail. If the police find syringes among their belongings, they're also sometimes charged with possession. In jail, their belongings -- including their card -- are confiscated while they await their first appearance in court. When they appear before the judge, they have no way of proving that they're authorized to carry needles.

"People are like, 'I'm scared. I thought this was going to work,'" Raville says. She fears that if drug users don't trust that the law will protect them from paraphernalia possession charges, they'll stop using the exchanges -- which is dangerous from a public health standpoint. In addition to giving out clean needles, the exchanges collect and safely dispose of dirty ones in an effort to keep them off the streets.

An image from the Harm Reduction Action Center Facebook page.
An image from the Harm Reduction Action Center Facebook page.

If a participant is not arrested but is merely ticketed for paraphernalia possession and given a date to show up in court, Raville says the center will write a letter to the judge explaining that the person is authorized to carry syringes. Every time the center has done that, the possession charge has been dropped, Raville says.

"Everybody wants to do the right thing," she says. "But they just don't know what the right thing is." The center has been working to educate the police by speaking to officers about the new law. Denver Police Department spokesman Sonny Jackson says the cops have heard the message. "As long as that person has that card and is allowed to carry a syringe, they won't be charged with possession of an injection device," he says.

But Raville says the issue goes beyond the Denver police. Cops in other jurisdictions have mistakenly told participants that the law only applies to Denver, she says, and some participants have reported that officers refuse to look at their cards altogether or even rip them up. Some judges don't seem to be aware of the new law, either, she says.

Raville says the center needs help spreading the word. "We passed these laws and we expect them to be implemented," she says.

Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at melanie.asmar@westword.com


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