Editor's note: Continuing our coverage of the opioid crisis in Colorado, we reached out to Harm Reduction Action Center executive director Lisa Raville to learn more about the use of heroin and other drugs in the Mile High City. This is the fifth post in the series. Click to read our previous pieces, "The Four Main Reasons People in Denver Overdose on Heroin," "Denver Homeless Shoot Meth in Winter So They Won't Freeze to Death,"'Every Bathroom in Our Community Will Continue to Be an Injection Site'" and "Heroin and Other Drug Use in Denver: The Brutal Numbers."
Harm Reduction Action Center executive director Lisa Raville recently told us that "every bathroom in our community will continue to be an injection site" after the Colorado legislature declined to authorize a pilot program for a supervised injection site. This situation appears to have contributed to at least one downtown grocer restricting restrooms to employee-use only and a major supermarket chain to install keypad entries for toilet facilities at multiple branches in the area. But spokespersons for the company won't confirm that injection-drug use led to or at least influenced these decisions.
The stores in question include the Natural Grocers facility at Colfax and Washington, whose restrooms can only be used by staffers, and several King Soopers affiliates, including one at 9th and Downing and the 14th and Speer shop, which installed keypads after experimenting with what company spokesperson Adam Williamson recently characterized to Denver7 as "special lights" that "made it difficult for users to find a vein."
We asked Williamson, with whom we corresponded via email, for more information about the lighting and why it was discontinued, but he avoided addressing the questions directly. His response: "We review safety procedures on a regular basis to make sure we are addressing these challenges. It’s a constant motion of change."
In the meantime, injection drug use in Denver continues to be prevalent, as is the case nationally.
"In the United States, we lost 64,000 people to all drug overdose deaths in 2016," Raville noted for a previous item. "In Colorado, we lost 912, and in the City and County of Denver, we lost 174. Of that 174, at least twenty died outside in an alley, in a park or in a business bathroom." She added: "We know that in 2016, we lost two people in business bathrooms. We also know that in the first part of 2017, we lost at least four in business bathrooms. So I'm a little concerned about what the numbers are going to be for all of 2017 when they're finalized."
One way that owners of businesses can reduce the odds of such a tragedy taking place at their location is to restrict public bathroom access, and they can do so legally. A representative of Denver Public Works confirms that even large operations such as supermarkets aren't required by either state or local law to allow customers to use its restrooms.
Amber Dutra, a spokesperson for Natural Grocers, makes this same point in a statement provided to Westword about the change in its restroom status.
"At Natural Grocers, it is always a priority to provide a safe and enjoyable shopping experience to our customers," she stresses. "Since 2017, Natural Grocers has limited public access to the restrooms at its Colfax and Washington store to ensure the safety and security of all customers and employees. We make an exception to this restriction when customers with disabilities, an eligible medical condition or children request restroom access. This policy is in full compliance with all applicable federal, state and local laws."
As for Williamson, he doesn't want anyone to think King Soopers views downtown shoppers differently than their suburban variants. In his words, "It’s important to note our store operations team evaluates best practices for all our locations at King Soopers. It isn’t isolated to urban areas."
He maintains that "a variety of factors...lead to these best practices" — not just the presence of injection drug users. "Our goal is making sure we are providing safe and clean restrooms for our customers and associates."
Rather than discussing the scope of the injection-drug problem that downtown King Soopers managers are facing, Williamson notes only that "our stores have a lot of foot traffic on a daily basis. We couldn’t quantify individual challenges." Likewise, he downplays the inconvenience to patrons when nature calls: "It’s simple — a customer just has to ask any associate" for the code. As for pushback from shoppers, he asserts that "we haven't had any concerns brought to our attention.... At the end of the day, our priority is to provide customers with a great shopping experience, and providing safe, clean restrooms is something they can expect."
Is King Soopers and its parent company, Kroger, supportive of Denver establishing a supervised injection site? Williamson sidesteps this inquiry, too. In his words, "This is an important conversation that’s best left to the experts."
Other businesses aren't as reticent to take a position on the concept. Dozens of enterprises, including City, O' City, Sexy Pizza, Make Believe Bakery, Fancy Tiger Clothing and the Colorado Hotel and Lodging Association, have signed a Harm Reduction Action Center letter in support of a supervised injection site in the area, joining the American Medical Association, the Drug Policy Alliance and many more advocacy organizations.
Meanwhile, Denver's Department of Public Works is continuing its public restroom pilot initiative, whose web page highlights "a growing need for publicly accessible restrooms."
Given the legislature's latest inaction on the issue, that need is likely to grow.
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