Denver Injection Site Legislation Faces Challenges

As bill sponsors prepare for hearing, passage for facility looks unlikely

Proposed legislation seeks to create an injection facility in Denver for intravenous drug users, but the bill’s path to victory seems narrow. / LAW WEEK FILE

Senate Bill 40, introduced at the beginning of the 2018 legislative session, proposes the creation of a supervised injection facility in Denver, but the prognosis for the legislation doesn’t look good.

The bill is scheduled for a hearing next week. It would create a pilot program in Denver that would create a site  where intravenous drug users could go to inject illegal drugs and be immune from legal repercussions. Bill sponsor Sen. Cheri Jahn anticipates a challenge passing the injection site portion of the bill. 

“I really think that piece of the bill is in trouble,” she said. “It’s going to be really tough to get that piece through.” The bill does have a Republican co-sponsor, Sen. Kent Lambert, but Jahn said at present she’s aware of two Republican senators who will not support the injection facility portion of the bill.

Jahn said she initially approached the concept with a good deal of skepticism.

“When I first heard this issue, I was like, ‘Are you kidding me, seriously?’” she said. “Then as I sat through hours and weeks [of meetings] on the interim committee, you really understand more about addiction.”

Jahn and House co-sponsor Rep. Brittany Pettersen both acknowledged that other elements of the bill are still important for combating the opioid crisis, even if the injection facility component doesn’t pass. The bill also proposes to expand syringe exchange programs, which would allow them to be operated out of hospitals. Right now, the Tri-County Health Department helps facilitate two syringe exchange programs: Harm Reduction Action Center in Denver and Aurora Syringe Access Services. Participants are able to dispose of used needles and obtain a clean one. The programs also provide education, treatment information and disease prevention services.

SB 40 also defines prescribing “opioid antagonist” drugs, like Naloxone, which can reverse an overdose. The bill clarifies policy to allow certain individuals (first responders, school employees and others) to obtain and administer antagonists, giving them general immunity if they are acting in good faith to try to stop or reverse an overdose. Jahn and Pettersen both said if the injection site doesn’t pass, they still intend to try and salvage other portions of the bill.

“It’s not just this bright, shiny thing,” Pettersen said of the injection facility. “It’s a whole spectrum. This is the first step in increasingly likelihood that they will pursue treatment.”

Last session, Pettersen chaired the Opioid and Other Substance Use Disorders Interim Study Committee. She spearheaded the package of bills on opioid prescription policy and reports on inpatient substance use to look at treatment and funding options. Jahn is also a co-prime sponsor of Senate Bill 24, which addresses workforce shortages in health care. One element of the bill proposes using some of the marijuana tax cash fund to provide loan repayment for those getting certified as behavioral health care providers and addiction counselors. Pettersen said she’s currently trying to gain a better understanding of committee members’ positions in order to provide clarification on how the facility would operate, oversight and other components.

“I will continue to work on bipartisan solutions,” she said. “Don’t give up hope until you know.”

Jahn and Pettersen both feel that continuing to educate those who are skeptical about the facility on issues of addiction and treatment is the key to getting a bill passed. If legislation that creates an injection site is passed through the General Assembly, Denver is poised to implement a facility on the municipal level. Denver City Council President Albus Brooks supports the idea of an injection site and is working to get other lawmakers and business associations on board. 

“When we look at other sites around the world, it’s clear it’s preventing people from dying and at least giving them that foot into treatment,” Brooks said. “When people do not understand all the facts and haven’t been educated on it, it doesn’t seem intuitive.”

One of the biggest issues the committee has identified is a lack of affordable treatment options for someone trying to get clean. House Bill 17-1351, which was sponsored by Pettersen and passed last session, cited a cost analysis by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The bill mandated a health report to analyze costs for providing substance abuse treatment as a state-funded benefit. The legislation states that “every dollar invested in the treatment of substance use disorders yields a return of up to $7 in reduced drug-related crime and criminal justice costs, and, when health care savings are included, more than a $12 return on investment.” Jahn added that facilities can help reduce emergency room costs incurred by the state and the impact on local businesses and public entities where individuals often inject and overdose.

Other U.S. cities have experienced similar pushback on the initiative. Philadelphia and Seattle are also both looking to implement injection sites. Last week, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in a statement he doesn’t feel an injection facility would be an “effective path to treatment.” Brooks noted that Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman supports the idea. Jahn added that data generated from a Denver injection facility would also be valuable in illustrating the success other facilities have seen in preventing death, overdose and HIV infection.

“You can’t get them into treatment if they’re dead,” Jahn said. “You never know when someone can say ‘I need help.’ It’s certainly a conversation that we need to get to the forefront. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s a conversation we need to start having.”

— Kaley LaQuea

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