Brittany Pettersen: It Could Be Years Before Legislature Considers Safe-Use Sites

Jake Holschuh
State Senator Brittany Pettersen explored introducing a bill that would have allowed safe-use sites in Colorado.
This week, Brittany Pettersen, the Democratic senator spearheading legislation that would have allowed safe-use sites in Colorado — facilities where individuals can use drugs such as heroin in a medically supervised setting intended to prevent overdoses — announced that she wouldn't introduce the bill this year. Pettersen's decision means that Denver can't have safe-use sites, which City Council approved last November pending statewide legislation.

Opponents of safe-use sites, including hosts of the radio station KNUS, celebrated the senator's decision this week.

Pettersen, whose mother struggled with opioid addiction and overdoses for years, spoke with Westword about her decision, the future of safe-use sites in Colorado, and when she might revisit the bill.

Westword: Proponents of safe-use sites, including such organizations as the Harm Reduction Action Center, were hoping that a statewide bill would be introduced this session. What led you to decide not to move forward with legislation?

Brittany Pettersen: What we saw happening was the perpetuation of misinformation and fear-mongering. Others were showing degrading videos of people who are at the end of their lives and the end of their disease — stigmatizing and shaming them.

That's not a platform that I'm willing to give to people.

Unfortunately, I think this actually brought us backwards in our work in addressing the opioid epidemic. It's painful because it's people like my mom who have had a disease and should be treated with the empathy that they deserve. So it was really hard for me to back away from the bill, but some people made this their number-one target, and we fundamentally did not have the support on our side. And when I say support, I mean the ability to combat the misinformation and fear-mongering inside the Capitol and outside the Capitol.

Can you walk me through how you reached that realization? It does seem like this was controversial right off the bat — for instance, in the House, safe-use sites came up in Republican Minority Leader Patrick Neville's opening day speech for the session. But then what happened? Was it that you were you knocking on doors around the Capitol and trying to get lawmakers on board with this and then realized that it was going to be an un-winnable fight?

I talked to my caucus from the beginning, and of course friends across the aisle who are sympathetic and empathetic and are willing to listen on this issue. And there were many people who said, "I'm sorry, I just can't go there. There's no way I can face people in my district."

Those lawmakers were starting to get a ton of messages from people who were scared and misinformed with all the rhetoric out there. And ultimately, we also have all these other huge bills that have been put on the back burner that will help save a lot more people, and there's a point at which you have to realize your limited capacity in what's ahead of you and how realistic it is.

Injection booths at Insite, a supervised injection site in Vancouver visited by a delegation from Denver in January. - FACEBOOK
Injection booths at Insite, a supervised injection site in Vancouver visited by a delegation from Denver in January.
So were some lawmakers on the fence about safe-use sites during the first weeks of the session, but then as time went on, they decided they couldn't fall on your side of the fence, for political or other reasons?

Yeah, beyond political reasons, it was mostly, "I can't justify this at home."

A bill like this is complicated. To get people to the understanding of why this necessary, you have to have a base of knowledge that is significant. I can tell you that, even coming from where I am, before coming to the Capitol as a legislator, I think I would have cringed at the thought of this existing, even with my mom's situation, because I didn't want to picture her there. It's taken thirty years of personal experience with my mom and also trying to solve this problem at a policy level for me to get to the level of understanding and empathy that I have, so I can't just expect people to be there.

But, that's why [Republican] Senator Kevin Priola got there. He actually sat through eight months of testimony over the last year and a half, trying to understand the depths of the problem that we're facing with the epidemic, and the solutions, and what we can learn from other countries.

I think we'll continue to build that base of knowledge and understanding at the Capitol, but we have to bring a large coalition together first. We have to bring out a ton of educational opportunities for legislators. When you do that, fear-mongering doesn't work as easily.

You're getting into what I was going to ask next, which is what you learned throughout this recent push for safe-use sites, what you may try to do differently next time, and when that next push may be.

I think that what we have to do is significant, so I think this is looking like a couple years of work.

A couple years. Is that in order to get past the next statewide election?

No, it's not about another election, it's about taking the time to build a coalition. Also, with what's happening with the federal government, we're watching what's happening with other cities.

Right, like the Justice Department and U.S. Attorney's Office in Pennsylvania suing a nonprofit in Philadelphia over the possibility of opening a safe-use site.

Right. And so hopefully we'll have answers. But I like to say that [in Colorado], this is not a loss, because it's the beginning of a conversation and exposure to these ideas. And eventually it's not going to be so shocking of an idea because it will be proven, it will be talked about, and we'll be able to implement it in Colorado. Right now, it's still a new way of thinking about things, and people just aren't there yet, which is why I will continue to keep having these conversations and be an advocate. I am not the only one who cares about this issue, but I just saw the writing on the wall that we just didn't have the capacity [this session].

What does this coalition that you mentioned look like? Does that include nonprofits like the Harm Reduction Action Center, or is it a legislative working group?

It's talking about the issue in a legislative interim committee [after this session ends in May]. It's providing opportunities for people to visit the Harm Reduction Action Center. It's providing opportunities to look at what other cities are doing and what's happening in other countries. And it's also about working with religious groups and people who really care about helping the most vulnerable. I think that we have the opportunity to work with groups like One Colorado and advocacy groups that could incorporate this into their work.

Right now you're seeing this get caught up with a desperation to regain power, and you're seeing it mixed in with a lot of other issues that need work.

Well, and you had other interested parties, like a radio station advocating against this to the point of creating letters people could send lawmakers against safe sites.

Yeah, like I said, there was this platform created for fear-mongering that I just wasn't interested [in enabling]. So my goal is to continue bringing empathy and give faces to the people who are suffering and dying every day. [Safe sites] are always going to be part of the conversation of helping the most vulnerable, but it is not the only thing.

A few months ago, there was a New York Times article about how Ohio cut their overdose rates in one year, and they attributed it to a bill similar to one I passed last year for residential and in-patient treatment for Medicare recipients. That's now in the process of being implemented, and we are going to save so many lives every year because of that one policy.

So I think we can get caught up with some of these bright and shiny objects because they seem new and divisive, but we also need to focus on all the other far-reaching policy proposals.

I know that this was a contentious issue, but we're going to continue to try to save lives.