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One Denver nonprofit's World AIDS Day message: Clean needles save lives

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Anyone who Googled anything today knows that it's World AIDS Day. And anyone who drove by the intersection of Colfax and Broadway this afternoon knows select folks in Denver think clean needles are part of the solution to stopping the spread of the disease.

For three hours, employees and friends of the Harm Reduction Action Center, a Denver nonprofit that educates and advocates for injection drug users, stood on the corner and waved signs painted with slogans such as "Clean Needles Save Lives" and "Stop Legislating Morality" at passing cars, eliciting honks and waves.

They also passed out condoms and HIV-prevention literature, and gathered more than 150 signatures on a petition in support of starting a pilot needle-exchange program in Denver. Needle exchange, which at its most basic is swapping injection drug users' old needles for clean ones to prevent the spread of diseases like HIV and hepatitis C, is illegal in Colorado.

"We need a legal syringe exchange in Denver," says Lisa Raville, director of the Harm Reduction Action Center. As proof, she points to statistics: According to a 2008 report by the Denver Office of Drug Strategy, 19 percent of current Colorado AIDS cases are attributed to injection drug use.

Denver has an underground needle exchange program known as USED, an organization that was the subject of the Westword feature "Why Doesn't Colorado Get the Point of Needle Exchange Programs?" And the Denver Drug Strategy Commission, a 27-member board that advises Mayor John Hickenlooper on drug-related policy, voted back in February to recommend that Denver look into starting a legal, above-ground pilot needle-exchange program.

Andrew McClure, who serves on the commission, says they've been working on a plan for a pilot program for months -- and hope to have a proposal before the mayor early next year.

But until then, advocates like Raville say they'll keep spreading the message that clean needles mean fewer infections. "We can't pretend this isn't happening," she says.

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