At 10:30 a.m. today, October 31, at a meeting of Denver City Council's Safety, Housing, Education & Homelessness committee, Councilman Albus Brooks will introduce a bill to create a pilot program for a supervised use site in the city. Also known as safe-injection sites, such facilities provide a space for users of intravenous drugs such as heroin that's designed to prevent overdoses and connect those wishing to kick their habit with resources to help them do so.
In August, officials in the Justice Department of President Donald Trump threatened cities with legal action should they open supervised use sites. But these objections don't give Brooks pause.
"As you know, Colorado was the first state in the country to legalize [recreational] marijuana, which the federal government did not condone," Brooks says. "There are many instances in our policies where we have had a different perspective than the federal government. So that's not a concern."
A more immediate issue involves the state legislature. Before the pilot program can take off, the bill Brooks touts requires action by the Colorado General Assembly, which considered a measure on the subject during the 2018 session. However, a number of Republican lawmakers balked at the idea; Senate President Kevin Grantham was quoted as saying, "I can’t keep my mind wrapped around creating these enclaves of places where illegal activity is brushed under the rug."
As a result, Democrats withdrew the proposal — but the concept hasn't gone away. This summer's release of the Denver Opioid Strategic Response Plan was cheered by Lisa Raville, executive director of the Harm Reduction Action Center, in part because it called for reducing the barriers to a supervised use site.
Brooks reveals that Raville will be on hand at the committee meeting today in support of the supervised use bill — and he underscores the human toll being taken by the opioid crisis that she outlined in our series of posts about heroin use in Denver. "Overdose deaths were the second-leading cause of deaths in the city of Denver in 2017," he says, "and we have a serious problem with addiction. Right now, folks are overdosing in our bathrooms, in our libraries."
Supervised use sites are a way of addressing issues like these, he adds. "I've been studying this for the past three or four years, and what we're seeing in other countries — and over sixty countries have these sites — is that they reduce deaths. This is a viable solution to slow down the death rate, and people cannot get help or treatment if they're dead. But we believe this mechanism and strategy can help us save lives."
Regarding the aforementioned Denver opioid response plan, Brooks stresses, "I'm proud of the city for putting together a strategy around treatment and prevention. But there's also a strategy of harm reduction. We need to reduce the harm that folks who are struggling with addiction are putting on themselves and their community. It may be hard for some Americans to understand, but there's ample international data and analysis that shows this works."
The requirement that the Colorado House and Senate approve the pilot program could become easier after Election Day; Brooks cites testimony earlier this year "before the Republican-led Senate, which we hope changes next week." But either way, he thinks that "an ordinance from the Denver City Council with a supermajority supporting it would send a strong message" to senators and representatives alike whether Democrats become the party in control of both chambers or not.
He's optimistic that enough of his Denver City Council colleagues will back the supervised use concept to send it to the desk of Mayor Michael Hancock. And while Brooks acknowledges that Hancock's administration hasn't taken a position on the sites thus far, the barrier-reduction language in the response plan "makes me believe he would support it."
Another incentive for Hancock's backing, Brooks feels, is that the pilot program "will not be publicly funded. It will be privately funded. That's something I know a lot of my constituents have talked about as a concern. But I think there are a lot of groups nationally that want to see American cities take this on. That's why I'm joining my colleagues in cities like Seattle and San Francisco and New York in saying that we're tired of seeing people die of overdoses every day, and seeing the numbers grow every year. And we want to do something about it."
The Safety, Housing, Education & Homelessness committee meeting is scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m. today at the City & County Building, 1437 Bannock Street, Room 391.