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Needle exchanges: City council approves making Denver ordinance allowing them more flexible

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Update: Last night, the city council voted 10-0 to approve amendments to the city's 1997 needle-exchange ordinance. The decision thrilled Lisa Raville, director of Denver's Harm Reduction Action Center, whose mission is to empower and advocate for injection drug users.

HRAC plans to apply with the city's Department of Environmental Health to run one of Denver's syringe exchange programs.

"We are just so excited that the city council is supportive," she says. "And we're excited to be able to offer the last piece to set people up successfully to eliminate the transmission of diseases like HIV and hepatitis C in the Denver community. The last piece we need is to be able to exchange syringes. So the excitement is palpable."

Look below for our earlier coverage, complete with a description of the amendments.

Original item, 3:34 p.m. March 22: Before they voted 8-to-5 to give themselves raises last night, Denver city councilors discussed an issue that would cost no money but, several councilors noted, might save lives.

The topic? Amending the city's 1997 ordinance allowing needle exchange programs to make it easier to operate them.

Denver does not currently have an above-ground needle exchange program. In 2009, Westword profiled an underground exchange, Underground Syringe Exchange Denver, that was operating in the city -- with both volunteers and participants risking arrest.

But last year, syringe exchange advocates scored a victory with the passage of a state law legalizing the programs. Though the Denver city ordinance existed well before the state law, it made clear that it was moot without the state's go-ahead. Now that it's been given, a group of advocates and public policymakers are working on developing a Denver program. Hence, the proposed changes to the ordinance.

Among them: Nixing the ordinance's previous one-dirty-syringe-for-one-clean-syringe rule; getting rid of the requirement that exchangers carry ID cards; and removing some restrictions on where the programs can be located, while adding another -- that they cannot be within 1,000 feet of a day care center. (Schools are already included.)

Read the proposed changes here.

Syringe exchanges aim to swap injection drug users' used needles for new ones to stop the spread of diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C. During a discussion of the changes last night, many city councilors seemed supportive.

"I do think we ought to make this as easy as possible for folks to get rid of needles," said councilman Paul Lopez. Without needle exchange programs, he said, many dirty syringes end up in the trash. "There is no Hefty bag that is going to keep our sanitation workers from getting pricked by one of these things."

Councilwoman Carol Boigon and councilman Doug Linkhart also spoke in favor of the changes. Councilwoman Jeanne Faatz asked several questions, including why the proposal would remove the requirement that exchangers carry ID cards identifying them as part of the program. She said she thought that provision was for their protection.

Mark Thrun, a Denver Health doctor who specializes in HIV, STD and hepatitis C control and is supportive of syringe exchange, explained that the state law protects exchange volunteers from drug paraphernalia laws but doesn't protect participants. Requiring them to carry an ID card identifying them as part of a needle exchange -- and therefore, possibly an injection drug user -- might discourage participation, he said.

The city council is scheduled to take a final vote on the proposed changes on March 29.

More from our Follow That Story archives: "Did Governor Ritter flip-flop on needle exchange?"

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