On February 19, Senator Brittany Pettersen revealed that she would not introduce legislation that would enable a pilot program for a safe-use site — a facility where individuals can inject illegal drugs such as heroin in a setting intended to prevent overdoses — during the 2019 legislative session.
Early the next day, 710 KNUS morning-drive host Peter Boyles, perhaps the most prominent critic of such a concept, celebrated in a big way, complete with airings of Queen's "We Are the Champions" and the theme from Rocky.
"We shouldn't have been able to do it," Boyles admits. "We're a 5,000-watt, directional AM radio station. We're not KOA. We're not the Fox. We're not KOSI. We're certainly not Channel 9. And yet I think the truth of what they were doing, or attempting to do, won out."
Momentum for safe-use sites built steadily last year, with Denver City Council member Albus Brooks among their most prominent proponents. "Overdose deaths were the second-leading cause of deaths in the city of Denver in 2017," he told us last October, "and we have a serious problem with addiction. Right now, folks are overdosing in our bathrooms, in our libraries."
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Safe-use sites are a way of addressing issues like these, he added. "I've been studying this for the past three or four years, and what we're seeing in other countries — and over sixty countries have these sites — is that they reduce deaths. This is a viable solution to slow down the death rate, and people cannot get help or treatment if they're dead. But we believe this mechanism and strategy can help us save lives."
The prospect of such sites in the U.S. prompted the Justice Department of President Donald Trump to threaten cities with legal action should they open such centers. But these objections didn't give Brooks pause.
"As you know, Colorado was the first state in the country to legalize [recreational] marijuana, which the federal government did not condone," he said. "There are many instances in our policies where we have had a different perspective than the federal government. So that's not a concern."
His confidence seemed well placed when the city council overwhelmingly passed a pilot program for a safe-use site, with only District 12 member Kevin Flynn turning thumbs down. But the plan could only move forward if legislation passed the Colorado General Assembly and Governor Jared Polis signed it into law, and over time, as documented by Westword staff writer Chris Walker in a January feature, support seemed to soften among some officials. Note that Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who released a statement backing the plan late last year, seemed to waffle during a 9News appearance last month — although he later stressed that his position hadn't changed.
Against this backdrop, Boyles and fellow KNUS host Steffan Tubbs traveled to Vancouver on January 10 to broadcast live from one of that city's safe-use sites. In an interview with Westword prior to his departure, Boyles made it clear he thought the Denver proposal was a disaster, prompting naysayers to suggest he'd already made up his mind before embarking on what he characterized as a fact-finding mission. But he rejects such assertions.
"If I thought this could work, as an addict myself, I'd be in favor of it," he allows. "But it's insanity."
During the two days and two nights he spent in Vancouver, Boyles continues, "I saw a man laying on the floor in one of these sites with a woman laying on top of him, injecting his neck while people walked around him. And I went into an alley almost on a dare. An advocate said, 'Do you have a chain or a watch on?' I said, 'I have a ring.' He said, 'Take it off before we go in there.' And it was unbelievable. We have the video."
Some of the imagery is included in this clip, which captures a February 4 presentation by Boyles and Tubbs at the Colorado State Capitol.
After seeing things like "a guy fifteen feet from the injection site stick a needle in his arm and then a woman pull it out and put it in her arm," Boyles says he was convinced that the concept was the equivalent of "setting up a bar for a street alcoholic to go in and drink every day until he passes out and then come back the next day to do it again. And that's how you become sober?"
Over the month-plus since then, Boyles has dedicated many of his programs to bashing safe-use sites — and he's frustrated that none of those in favor of them would take him on.
"All of these politicians and media outlets and others are now portraying themselves as victims of fear-mongering," he contends. "But those are the same people who wouldn't return my phone calls or my emails asking them to appear on the show."
(By the way, Walker did guest with Boyles following the publication of the aforementioned feature, and although he's a reporter, not a safe-use sites exponent, he did push back on some figures the host had been using to bolster his arguments.)
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Boyles adds: "They had all the political power. The Democrats had the majority. The Denver City Council voted 12-1 for it. But this thing was turned back. And I don't know how you can call that bullying. It was a grassroots effort. We asked people to call politicians. We put up their email addresses and phone numbers on our website. And they did."
In regard to the timing of the announcement, Boyles has a theory, or, as he puts it, "a belief that over Presidents' Day weekend, Governor Polis put an end to it. These are just guesses, but I don't think he wanted to see what was going to happen to this. Donald Trump, when he won two years ago, had the executive office, the House and the Senate, and he fucked it up. Right now, Jared Polis has all three of those things, and he's one smart man. I think he said, 'I'm not going to fuck it up over this.'"
We reached out to Polis's office to ask about Boyles's supposition, as well as the governor's opinions about the bill's fate and the safe-use-site concept in general. When and if a spokesperson gets back to us, we'll update this post.
In the meantime, Boyles is confident Denver hasn't seen the end of proposals for a safe-use site. "Oh, they're coming back," he predicts. "This is like a Stephen King novel. Nothing ever dies in one of them. It just returns in another form. So we'll cross this bridge again — and if I'm here and still working, I'll be waiting for them."