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Syringe-exchange programs: Bill to legalize them introduced in state legislature

A lot has happened in the eleven months since Westword last wrote about Colorado's lack of a legal syringe exchange program -- and how a group called Underground Syringe Exchange Denver, or USED, formed to fill that gap.

But with the introduction of Senate Bill 189 this week, the state is now one step closer to bringing syringe exchange above-ground.

At their most basic, syringe exchange programs are intended to swap injection-drug users' used needles for new ones to stop the spread of diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C.

The bill would create an exemption in the state's drug paraphernalia laws to allow employees or volunteers of approved syringe exchange programs to possess needles. Any program would have to be approved by either a county or district board of health after consulting with stakeholders -- including the police. Those boards could then contract with a nonprofit organization to run the program, if they chose. The contracts would be reviewed yearly.

Senator Pat Steadman, a Denver Democrat, is the bill's lead sponsor. A former lobbyist, Steadman advocated for legal syringe exchange in Colorado in the '90s.

"I've been aware of the need to do this for many, many years," he says. "Unlike prior attempts at doing this, when the concern was the transmission of HIV, today, HIV is really a secondary concern to the hepatitis C transmission rate in the injection drug using population." The stigma around HIV and other diseases has changed in the last decade, he says, and "this time, hopefully, we'll get it done."

Steadman also points out that decades worth of research is "pretty conclusive at this point that having one of these programs doesn't send mixed messages or condone drug use or lead to criminality." No, he says, a syringe exchange program "will largely go by unnoticed, as the current injection drug use in our community goes largely unnoticed."

Lisa Raville, director of Denver's Harm Reduction Action Center, a nonprofit that serves injection drug users, agrees that syringe exchange's time has come. "Thirty-five states and sixty countries have syringe exchanges," she says. "It's common sense. It's realistic."

Proponents hope the effort is more successful than when the legislature considered legal syringe exchange in 1998. That year, a bill made it through the Senate but was killed by the conservative House Committee on Health, Environment, Welfare and Institutions. But not before supporters had their say. The star witness to testify in favor of the bill? Then-Denver district attorney Bill Ritter.

"I don't see a downside," he told the committee, according to a recording of the hearing. "I don't see that it dilutes our message if we stay strong on the message. I don't see that people who participate in needle exchange programs started their drug use -- their heroin use, specifically -- because a needle exchange program existed. I just don't see that."

Westword called Ritter's spokesman to see if the governor supports the latest bill, and will update this blog when we hear back. In the meantime, Steadman says he spoke with the governor's staff before introducing the bill and collaborated with the state Department of Public Health and Environment on the wording -- which are good signs.

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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