At a meeting last night, November 26, Denver City Council approved a plan to create a safe-use site for injection drug users by a 12-1 margin. District 2's Kevin Flynn was the only member of the panel to turn his thumb down.
Afterward, Councilman Albus Brooks, who touted the proposal to Westword in October, took to Facebook to share photos like the one above, in which he's seen embracing Harm Reduction Action Center executive director Lisa Raville, a longtime advocate of such facilities, which are also known as safe-injection sites. The images were accompanied by remarks that attempted to put the concept in context.
"There’s a national health crisis, and cities are on the front lines," Brooks wrote. "When we view people as simply 'addicts,' we rob them of their humanity, and it becomes easy to stigmatize their struggle or ignore their pain."
In his view, "This ordinance isn’t about addicts. This is about our neighbors. This is about our neighbors experiencing addiction. When we see people as our neighbors, we see their stories deeply connected to ours. And that is how we save lives. That is why we are here tonight."
Brooks characterized the vote in favor of launching a safe-use site in Denver as "a beautiful moment for our city to form a healing union with our state legislature and governor-elect" — an allusion to developments over the past year that stopped a similar proposition in its tracks.
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During late 2017, a bipartisan group blessed six opioid bills slated for the then-upcoming legislative session, including one that called for "a pilot project for a supervised injection facility in Denver."
The measure was needed, the participants argued, because "like needle-exchange programs, data show that SIFs do not increase the use of illicit drugs, but do reduce the spread of diseases like HIV and hepatitis C while increasing referrals to medical and/or substance abuse treatment."
Nonetheless, the safe-use-site bill ran into trouble in the Colorado General Assembly after 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."
The Denver City Council plan doesn't erase the measure's rejection by the legislature. Indeed, it can't come to fruition without the General Assembly passing a bill authorizing a safe-use site — a stronger possibility now that the state Senate is back under Democratic control, along with the state House. Moreover, no public funds have been earmarked for the facility, though advocates are confident that private resources will be found for it.
Another potential obstacle: President Donald Trump. In August, officials in the Department of Justice threatened cities with legal action should they open supervised-use sites. But when we raised these objections to Brooks in October, he said he wasn't worried.
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"As you know, Colorado was the first state in the country to legalize [recreational] marijuana, which the federal government did not condone," he told us. "There are many instances in our policies where we have had a different perspective than the federal government. So that's not a concern."
Likewise, Brooks was confident that Mayor Michael Hancock, who had been noncommittal about backing a safe-use site, would offer his support if Denver City Council acted. And that proved to be the case: In a press release issued on November 27, Hancock offered this: "Like cities across the country, Denver is seeing significant numbers of people dying each year of drug overdoses. I applaud Councilman Brooks for looking for innovative answers. There are many implementation and legal details to work out, but I fully support the bill city council approved last night, and will sign it into law."
Hancock added: "Denver has taken this step, and we look forward to a continued partnership with the state legislature in addressing the opioid crisis and exploring changes to state law to allow for innovative solutions to this statewide problem."
This post has been updated to include information related to Mayor Michael Hancock's pledge to sign the safe-use-site bill.