Denver Homeless Shoot Meth in Winter So They Won't Freeze to Death
Photo by Britt Chester
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 second post in the series. Click to read our first piece, "The Four Main Reasons People in Denver Overdose on Heroin."

Lisa Raville has been seeing more injection meth users taking advantage of the Harm Reduction Action Center's programs in recent years — "but I'm not sure if it's a rise or if it's just a harm-reduction method people have been using for years and years and years." She speculates that increased participation may be related to a drop-off in "the paranoia of people thinking cops will be sitting out front or that we're law enforcement."

Such fears are unfounded, Raville stresses. Over the years the center has been in operation, she's forged a good relationship with police, who have agreed not to stake out the facility and troll for easy arrests. Moreover, she points out, "we have an exemption clause that allows folks to carry sterile and used syringes in the State of Colorado. That's been particularly powerful for our folks, as long as they dispose of them properly."

Meanwhile, Raville notes that injection meth use is particularly prevalent among members of Denver's homeless population, and she believes their motivation is quite practical in some respects.

"A lot of times homeless folks don't want to go into shelters, especially on those cold and snowy nights, because they're going to be packed," she explains. "A lot of times, they'll inject meth so they can be up all night and walk around the city. Because with meth, they won't lay down and freeze to death."

From their point of view, "that's actually a really good harm-reduction method. They're reducing the danger of being outside in the middle of winter, in the middle of a snowstorm — and they want to stay alive."

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Harm Reduction Action Center executive director Lisa Raville.
File photo
The center is especially busy under these circumstances, Raville reveals. "We never get a snow day here. We're open nine to noon, but a lot of times when it's a super snowy day, staff will get here at eight. They'll be like, 'The coffee's not ready, but come in.' People will help us get set up and go above and beyond to help us clean up, take out the trash. They're very loving, kind and generous people."

Approximately 50 percent of clients are on meth at the time of intake, according to Harm Reduction Action Center statistics tracked from February 2012 through the end of 2017. That's only a tick below heroin, which registers at 51 percent.

In addition, 15 percent of participants have partaken in goofballs — a mix of meth and heroin.

Raville sees getting accurate information to meth users, many of them women (including plenty who are pregnant), as one of the center's most important missions. But it's one of many.

"People at syringe exchanges are on the frontlines," she acknowledges. "But in the midst of this overdose epidemic, we're working with law enforcement and emergency departments in ways we just simply haven't before. Law enforcement knows they can't arrest their way out of the epidemic, or they would have already done so. That's why they're shifting to public health — pushing forward with LEAD, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, which shifts low-level drug users and sex workers to services and non-incarceration."

That's important given the scope of meth use in the area. "Meth overdoses really increased in Colorado in 2017, and one reason is because a lot of people think they can't overdose on meth — which they can," Raville says. "So it's really important we have those conversations with folks."

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.