As if to highlight the fraught divisions over the idea of supervised use sites in Colorado — spaces where people can use drugs such as heroin under medical supervision without risk of arrest — there were dueling events at the State Capitol today, February 4. In the west foyer on the Capitol building's main level, a group of advocates, including individuals in recovery, representatives from health- and recovery-focused nonprofits, and family members who have lost relatives to drug use, staged a press conference explaining why they think the sites are a good idea for Colorado and can save lives. At the same time a floor up, a group of Republican lawmakers who oppose such sites were said to be at a screening of videos showing people who use drugs in Vancouver around a supervised use site in the Canadian city, as a way of building opposition to the idea.
Westword recently covered supervised use sites (“Out of Site,” January 24) in a feature story that looked at the leaders behind the push for such sites in Denver — where an ordinance allowing them passed Denver City Council in November — and across Colorado.
Some of the individuals in our story, including Lisa Raville of the Harm Reduction Action Center (Colorado's largest syringe access program) and Joelle Fairchild (a mother who lost her son to a heroin overdose in 2014), were at the Capitol to share their support for supervised use sites on Monday.
Republican Senator Kevin Priola is working with Democratic Senator Brittany Pettersen on legislation that could include supervised use sites as one strategy to combat the opioid crisis. Priola has faced intense pressure from Republican colleagues to roll back any support for supervised use sites, but so far, he's stood his ground.
But Pettersen says that the bill could be delayed past the current legislative session, which ends in May, contradicting the assumptions of many lawmakers in Denver who thought such a bill would be introduced during the current session.
“We still have a lot of educating to do,” Pettersen said at the Capitol today, adding that opposition has been intense, particularly from radio station KNUS.
“There are right-wing talk-radio hosts who are trying to perpetuate fear and misinformation," she explained. "I never listen to it; I just know it's happening. But what really upsets me are the videos [KNUS took in Vancouver] of people who are suffering. They're trying to use it as the face of what people should be scared of instead of trying to build empathy and understanding."
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Pettersen told the crowd gathered in the West foyer at the Capitol: "What's happening right now on the second floor are videos of people who are dying of their disease... . We need to move this conversation to a broad array of policies we have been working on to address prevention, education, treatment, recovery and harm reduction, because every single spectrum is needed to address this public health crisis. And the fear-mongering going on is creating more stigma around the people most at risk of dying today. Really, [supervised sites] are a small piece of a very large package that we're working on. I get frustrated because this is a bright and shiny object that people want to focus on."
While Pettersen could not say whether she and Priola will introduce a bill that includes supervised use sites before the current legislative session ends in May, she acknowledged that she expects the process to go differently than last February, when she tried to introduce a supervised site bill under the Republican-controlled senate. Since the November election, the political makeup of the Statehouse has changed, with Democrats now controlling both houses.
“One difference is that this year we will have a chance for a fair hearing," she says. "It won't be sent to a kill committee.”