Health

Denver Will Mark International Overdose Awareness Day on August 31

The memorial wall at the Harm Reduction Action Center is growing far too quickly.
The memorial wall at the Harm Reduction Action Center is growing far too quickly. Courtesy of Lisa Raville
Fentanyl, the high-strength synthetic opioid that has infiltrated the nation's recreational drug supply, has had a devastating impact in Denver. Deaths connected to the drug in the city rose from 56 in 2019 to 159 in 2020, and the number could surpass that in 2021.

"It's the worst we've ever seen," says Lisa Raville, executive director of the Harm Reduction Action Center. "We're losing too many people to preventable overdoses, and we need to be doing something different."

And so the Harm Reduction Action Center is marking International Overdose Awareness Day with a memorial and rally from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, August 31. "We know that people feel very siloed in their grief for losing loved ones," explains Raville. "We know the larger community is grieving."

The rise in drug-related deaths isn't limited to Denver. Across Colorado, 1,477 people died from a drug overdose in 2020; the national death count was 93,000.

While rising, fentanyl overdoses didn't account for all of the drug-related deaths in Denver: The total was 225 in 2019 and 370 in 2020, with this year on pace to register over 400. The city will eventually receive millions of dollars from the $400 million that Colorado settled for in connection with a national lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies over the opioid crisis, but that won't bring back lives lost.

The Harm Reduction Action Center doesn't just track numbers; a memorial wall inside its offices at 112 East Eighth Avenue holds photos of individuals who died from drug overdoses. "We just added eight pictures a couple of days ago about people we found out about in the last couple of weeks," Raville says.
click to enlarge
Lisa Raville serves as executive director of the Harm Reduction Action Center.
Jake Holschuh
The Harm Reduction Action Center is the largest public-health agency in Colorado that works specifically with people who inject drugs. The HRAC offers needle exchange services, so that people can drop off used needles and leave with sterile syringes. It also offers access to Narcan, the nasal spray that can reverse an opioid overdose, as well as free HIV and other STI testing and fentanyl testing strips. It also hosts free educational classes for those who stop by the center.

Raville believes it's time to have a "real conversation about safe supply. We have a very problematic and unpredictable drug supply." In other countries, safe supply involves prescriptions of drugs that people use, such as heroin.

For years, Raville has been pushing to create a legal framework for supervised injection sites, which she refers to as "overdose prevention sites," to take "drug use out of the public sphere and put it into a controlled environment." These sites exist in many countries, including Canada and Australia, and have been shown to virtually eliminate the risk of death from using drugs under the care of a trained supervisor.

In 2018, Denver City Council, led by then-Councilman Albus Brooks, approved an ordinance for a supervised injection site within city limits. Similar efforts at the state level stagnated, however, and Denver never went ahead with the program. Raville is still hoping to see the Colorado Legislature pass a bill to allow for supervised injection sites, but she says that lawmakers are reluctant to do so while knowing that the federal government is watching.

"Sometimes it feels like we're shouting into the void with decision-makers and elected officials about how we need to change things," Raville notes.

In Philadelphia, plans to set up a supervised injection site came under fire from the feds, who sued the nonprofit organization Safehouse, which planned to run the site. In January, a panel of judges in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ruled that the site would be illegal.

Learn more about this and other issues on International Overdose Awareness Day; get details about Denver's event here.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.