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Needle exchanges: Two organizations turn in proposals to run Denver's first legal exchanges

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Two organizations have applied to operate the first official syringe exchange programs in Denver, according to the city's Department of Environmental Health. The office will now review the proposals submitted by the Harm Reduction Action Center and another agency whose name has not been revealed and make a decision in September.

Robin Valdez, division director for the department, preferred not to reveal the names of either organization just yet. But the Harm Reduction Action Center has been public about its efforts to become one of Denver's first legal exchanges.

"We've been making a concerted effort to push this forward," says director Lisa Raville.

And the service is needed, advocates say. Denver's Office of Drug Strategy estimates that there are about 5,000 injection drug users in the city. Last year, the Harm Reduction Action Center served 1,300 of them -- and the numbers are increasing. Raville says the center has seen an average of 35 new clients each month this year, with approximately fifty accessing services each day the drop-in center is open.

But before now, the city refused to sanction exchanges because they were illegal under state law. In 2009, Westword profiled a group called Underground Syringe Exchange Denver that was operating an off-the-radar exchange in the city.

Last year, state lawmakers passed a bill legalizing syringe exchange programs in which injection drug users (and others who use syringes) can swap dirty needles for clean ones to reduce the spread of diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C.

Then, in March of this year, Denver's city council amended a 1997 ordinance regarding needle exchanges, making the programs easier to operate in the city. The council also set a limit as to the number of programs, capping it at three.

The Denver Department of Environmental Health asked organizations to submit proposals to run the legal exchanges; they were due at noon Friday. A review committee will now evaluate the proposals. Their recommendations will be presented to the department manager, who will then present them to the department board. The board is expected to make a final decision September 8.

"We're really looking forward to some organizations providing this service," Valdez says. "17 percent of all HIV infections are due to injection drug use. We're hoping to reduce or, at some point, stop that."

The exchanges, he says, will also serve as places where injection drug users can interact with public health officials. "Essentially, we're hoping the organizations will meet clients where they are and be able to help them when they're ready to access services," he says.

Watch this space for more news about the proposals and their progress.

More from our News archives: "Catherine Keske, CSU prof, ordered back to jail in parenting dispute over e-mail."

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