"Every Bathroom In Our Community Will Continue to Be an Injection Site"

Six people overdosed in the restrooms at the Denver Central Library during the first three months of 2017.
File photo
Six people overdosed in the restrooms at the Denver Central Library during the first three months of 2017.
Editor's note: In conjunction with our continuing coverage of the opioid crisis in Colorado, we reached out to Harm Reduction Action Center executive director Lisa Raville to learn more about the use of heroin and other drugs in the Mile High City. This is the third post in the series. Click to read our previous pieces, "The Four Main Reasons People in Denver Overdose on Heroin" and "Denver Homeless Shoot Meth in Winter So They Won't Freeze to Death."

Although Lisa Raville has worked hard to build the Harm Reduction Action Center into Colorado's largest syringe exchange, she feels strongly that even more good could be done if the state had supervised use facilities, where individuals could inject drugs in an environment that put safety first, as opposed to the Denver Central Library branch, where six people overdosed during the first three months of 2017.

But while a pilot program for a safe-use site was included in a series of bills intended to address the opioid epidemic, the measure specific to it failed in February for reasons that frustrate her.

"There was clearly some misinformation out there," she says. "The bills came out of the opioid interim committee, which met at the Capitol from July through October of last year. There were five Democrats, five Republicans, five members from the House, five from the Senate, and everybody else was there: prevention, treatment, law enforcement, me. Six bill packages came out of that — and one of them was the harm reduction package. But the problem was, they put law enforcement efforts and harm reduction in one package."

click to enlarge This white board includes key statistics about the Harm Reduction Action Center. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL ROBERTS
This white board includes key statistics about the Harm Reduction Action Center.
Photo by Michael Roberts
As a result, Raville continues, "a couple of legislators were like, 'Oh, we thought we were going to be running a tough-on-crime kind of thing.' At that point, the senate majority leader [Senator Mark Scheffel] sent it to the kill committee — and they call it the kill committee for a reason. At the hearing, we had one person speak in opposition, but law enforcement and the district attorneys were neutral, which is exactly where I needed them, and we had a lot of people speak out in support. We had fifty businesses and fifty service organizations sign on: medical societies, members of the faith community, homeless service providers. So I left that day feeling really energized that this was going to pass, because it's the right thing to do. But it died anyway."

Raville isn't ready to raise the white flag yet, however: "May 9 is the end of the session, and anything can happen before that," she maintains. But if the bill isn't miraculously resurrected, she plans to pitch a proposal for the City of Denver to create its own safe-use site and join other progressive communities around the globe.

"Currently this is happening in ten countries and 63 cities, and there are 102 total facilities," Raville points out. "And they've found that these centers decrease the acquisition of HIV and hepatitis C and skin tissue infections, which can be very costly in the emergency department. If I'm in an alley behind a dumpster, I may not use an alcohol pad first. I'm just trying to hurry. So you can get abscesses, and that can be costly. They also promote proper syringe disposal. And no one's ever died from an overdose at these facilities, because there are trained professionals there who can recognize problems and respond. And we're not just talking about heroin overdoses. We're talking about all overdoses. If you can recognize them early on and make sure people get to the hospital, things can go really well."

By the way, no one's ever died of an overdose at the Harm Reduction Action Center, either.

click to enlarge Lisa Raville, executive director of the Harm Reduction Action Center. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL ROBERTS
Lisa Raville, executive director of the Harm Reduction Action Center.
Photo by Michael Roberts
The United States is behind the curve on safe-use sites, but Raville sees positive signs. "Currently, Seattle and San Francisco are pushing forward, and probably in the next six months, they'll have gotten approval in their cities. And there's legislation pending in several other states. It's simply a seizure issue — because use and possession on a property can get that property seized. We just want to get an exemption to that."

In the absence of such action, "every bathroom in our community will continue to be an injection site," Raville emphasizes. "They're just not supervised. Now, in a magical world, people would all be housed and there would be no drugs. But realistically, that's not what's happening. Not only are people injecting drugs in these places, but they're dying in these places."

She understands that "it's a big leap for legislators when you talk about injection-drug use. They want to talk about pills. They don't want to talk about people injecting. But this kind of facility is really something we've been talking about since the syringe exchange started. Not everybody is going to use it, and that's fine — but I want people to have access to it, because otherwise they're going to inject outside in alleys and parks or in business bathrooms. I know that because they're telling me that. They're saying, 'Oh, my gosh, we're struggling.' And I'm like, 'Okay, let's change it.'"

The Harm Reduction Action Center is located at 231 East Colfax Avenue; it's open from 9 a.m. to noon. The phone number is 303-572-7800. Click to visit the HRAC website.