Denver's two syringe exchange programs can now provide mobile services, thanks to an 8-to-3 vote by Denver City Council Monday night to lift the restriction that kept exchanges 1,000 feet away from schools and child care centers.
The goal is to allow exchange programs to reach more of the city's 5,000 injection drug users.
"One of the best things we can do sometimes is get our policies out of the way," said councilman Paul Lopez.
The purpose of a needle exchange is to swap dirty needles for clean ones in order to stop the spread of diseases like HIV and hepatitis C. Exchanges were illegal in Colorado until 2010, when lawmakers legalized them.
In Denver, two organizations -- the Colorado AIDS Project and the Harm Reduction Action Center -- were approved to do syringe exchange. The Harm Reduction Action Center is the bigger of the two programs; in 2012, it gave out 116,671 clean needles and safely disposed of 71,323 dirty ones.
Director Lisa Raville says the organization, which conducts exchanges at its location Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to noon, is currently reaching about 1,300 users. Allowing outreach workers to walk around the city and exchange needles with users in the places where they spend their time will increase the organization's reach, she says.
"We need to be all over the city and county of Denver," Raville says.
The 1,000-foot buffer zone around schools and child care centers (see map below) was so restrictive that the only place it was legal to exchange needles was essentially in the middle of the South Platte River, she says.
Even under the new rules, outreach workers will have to stay out of parks, per an agreement with the mayor's office. Councilman Charlie Brown said Monday night that he'd like them to stay off the 16th Street Mall, as well.
"I am very concerned that this will have a negative effect on our tourism," he said. "To have our visitors see a needle exchange program on the Mall is not the image we want."
Brown was one of the three council members, along with Jeanne Robb and Jeanne Faatz, who voted against lifting the 1,000-foot buffer zone around schools. "I really hope there are not a lot of drug users hanging around Morey Middle School," Robb said. "And if there are, I'm not thrilled with the idea of bringing needles to them."
But councilman Chris Nevitt, who voted for the measure, said that while mobile exchanges might make some people nervous, the public health benefits of clean needles outweighs any concerns. He likened using dirty needles to playing Russian roulette. "The needle exchange program takes the bullets out of the gun," he said.
Councilwoman Robin Kneich added that banning needle exchanges from certain parts of the city won't get rid of the drug use there. "We need to give this a chance," she said.
Below, see a map of the 1,000-foot buffer zones around schools.
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