Syringe exchange legalization bill clears first legislative hurdle

A bill that would legalize syringe exchange programs in Colorado cleared its first hurdle today. The Senate Health and Human Services Committee approved it with two nay votes.

Last year, Westword wrote about the state's lack of legal syringe exchange programs, which swap injection-drug users' used needles for new ones with the aim of stopping the spread of diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C. In January 2008, group called Underground Syringe Exchange Denver, or USED, formed to fill that gap in Denver.

Senate Bill 189 would bring syringe exchanges above ground. Westword attended a portion of today's committee hearing. Here's what we heard:

Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett: "This program is good for public health. It's good for public safety." (Boulder County is the only county in Colorado that already operates a syringe exchange program, with the understanding that the district attorney will not prosecute its workers and volunteers.)

When asked by Senator Kevin Lundberg whether Boulder's program has increased drug use there, Garnett said no. "Drug use numbers have certainly not gone up," he said.

Dr. Mark Thrun, infectious disease specialist at Denver Health: Thrun rattled off several disease-related statistics: 11,000 people living with HIV in Colorado; 80,000 people living with hepatitis C; between 10,000 and 15,000 injection drug users in Denver, many of whom have hepatitis C -- which is highly contagious via sharing needles.

"Preventing these diseases will save taxpayers money," he said. "In our opinion, syringe exchange is, and has been for a long time, common sense."

Ned Calonge, Colorado's Chief Medical Officer: Calonge said that while he's personally wrestled with the fact that allowing syringe exchange programs would exempt workers and volunteers from drug paraphernalia laws, the end result is worth it.

"I can't deny the data," he said, referencing the fact that studies have shown exchange programs lower disease transmission and don't cause more drug use. "This says we're going to avert disease."

Lundberg, a Berthoud Republican, questioned him about whether allowing such programs would open the door to legalizing drugs. "This is like providing condoms in high school settings," Lundberg said. "(The condoms) are not for balloons. And neither are these needles for anything other than illegal drugs."

Calonge said he sees it differently. While there are other programs aimed at stopping things like teen pregnancy and drug use, needle exchange programs are about keeping people healthy. He called them "an intervention I know will save lives."

The bill, sponsored by Denver Democrat Pat Steadman, now heads to the Senate floor for debate. Stay tuned.

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar