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Needle exchanges: Denver's first approved, second put on hold due to building problem

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Last night, the Department of Environmental Health board approved Denver's first legal syringe exchange, which will be run by the Colorado AIDS Project. But the Harm Reduction Action Center, which serves injection drug users and has been at the forefront of legalizing syringe exchanges in Colorado, was not approved.

The reason? Their home base, a small red house on Lipan Street, isn'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," says Robin Valdez, division director for the department. "There were some deficiencies. But we really want to have the Harm Reduction Action Center provide these services as quickly as we can."

As such, the board okayed a deal that allows the department manager to approve HRAC as soon as the organization finds a suitable location. In other words, HRAC won't have to wait for the next board meeting. "Out of both organizations, they have the closest linkage to the injection-drug-use community and we want to see this program get going," Valdez says.

HRAC has actually been looking for a new space since March, but landlords have been reluctant, says director Lisa Raville. She says many are concerned about the population it serves. "A lot of property owners and landlords are nervous about loitering or about bringing injection drug users into the area," Raville says. "But they're already here."

For HRAC, the perfect space would be a storefront close to public transportation with several private rooms that could be used for HIV testing or case management, as well as a larger, more open room that could host the syringe exchange, Raville says. The space would also have to be 1,000 feet from a school or childcare center -- and up to code.

Raville says that while the zoning issue is a disappointment, she's happy that Denver finally has its first legal exchange. In 2009, Westword profiled a group called Underground Syringe Exchange Denver, which was illegally swapping dirty needles for clean ones because doing so was against the law. Lawmakers changed that in 2010, but it took until last night for Denver to approve its first program.

"Last night was a victory for injection drug users," Raville says.

More from our Follow That Story archives: "Medical marijuana dispensary The Clinic buys day-care center that delayed Highland opening."

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