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Harm Reduction Action Center opens syringe exchange on Santa Fe Drive

The Harm Reduction Action Center has a new home, in a storefront at 733 Santa Fe Drive, and a new program: the city's second legal syringe exchange, something the nonprofit has advocated for for years. "It's been 21 months since Governor Ritter signed this into legislation," says director Lisa Raville. "We're providing that last piece to save people's lives and I have to tell you, it feels great."

Though Raville and others connected with the center lobbied heavily to legalize syringe exchange, which happened in 2010, and then change city ordinance to make them easier to operate in Denver, accomplished in 2011, the Harm Reduction Action Center ran into problems when it tried to open a legal exchange. Its old building, a little red house on Lipan Street, wasn't up to code.

"It came to our attention from the zoning department that the current location of the Harm Reduction Action Center did not meet building code," Robin Valdez, division director for the Department of Environmental Health, told Westword last September. "There were some deficiencies. But we really want to have the Harm Reduction Action Center provide these services as quickly as we can."

It took a while, but the center eventually found a new building and opened its syringe exchange program this month. The center is exchanging needles on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to noon. It also provides health education, health care services and emotional support to injection drug users and their sexual partners.

The purpose of an exchange, which swaps dirty needles for clean ones (though not necessarily on a one-to-one basis), is to stop the spread of diseases like HIV and hepatitis C. In 2009, Westword profiled a group called Underground Syringe Exchange Denver, which was illegally swapping needles because doing so was then against the law. After the Denver city council changed its ordinance to effectively allow exchanges in the city, the Colorado AIDS Project became Denver's first legal syringe exchange.

A 2008 study by the Denver Office of Drug Strategy estimated that there are about 4,990 injection drug users in Denver. Approximately 19 percent of AIDS cases are attributed to sharing needles, and Denver Public Health estimates that 73 percent of injectors have hepatitis C. Thus far, Raville reports that 46 people have accessed the center's syringe exchange and many of them are providing clean needles to others, as well.

See photos of a few exchanges below.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Needle exchange: Boulder County approves first legal dirty-for-clean needle swap in the state."

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar