Denver just became one of several major U.S. cities to take the first steps in setting up a place for people to use illegal drugs under medical supervision, with the goal of driving down overdose deaths. On Monday, Colorado’s capital joined several other places such as New York City, Seattle, Philadelphia and San Francisco with a lot of motivation — but no sure path — in wanting to make so-called “safe-injection” facilities a reality. The city council voted to support a plan that would allow one supervised injection site with clean syringes, overdose prevention, mental health services, and social services. The Department of Justice, which did not respond to a request for comment, previously pledged to shut down these sites and has threatened would-be operators with arrest.
Driven in part by the dangerous, hard-to-detect synthetic opioids like fentanyl, more than 70,000 Americans died of drug overdoses last year. Advocates and drug policy experts argue that if drug users had access to nearby medical personnel at a safe injection site, fewer people would die. “We have to get out of this idea that it’s just these crazy homeless folks who are doing these drugs. You’ll see business suits going into the needle exchange. This is a crisis. Our president has said it, every governor and mayor has said it,” said Denver City Councilman Albus Brooks, who sponsored the ordinance. “Now it’s finally time to start putting some innovative practices together that have worked.”
If Denver wants to open a comprehensive site that won’t risk an immediate shutdown, city officials will need the approval of the state legislature, which Democrats will control next year, to grant the city immunity. Earlier this year, a similar bipartisan proposal to allow a pilot safe-injection site in the city failed in the Republican-controlled state Senate. Ten countries around the world, including Canada, Australia, and Norway, already have safe injection sites. But in the U.S., the so-called “crack house” statute of the Controlled Substances Act, which bars people from operating facilities for drug use or distribution, makes them plainly illegal. Plenty of places already violate that act, however, by allowing recreational marijuana. Under federal law, for example, weed is illegal, but 10 states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana and allow residents to carry and sell the drug in certain amounts.
But the prospect of irking the feds can still intimidate city officials. In late September, California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would’ve allowed a single safe injection site in San Francisco, which had the support of the city and its mayor. Seattle has stalled on its safe injection site over community protest. Although Philadelphia is on board with a a proposal for a privately funded site called “Safehouse,” it’s unclear when or how that facility will take off. Meanwhile, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed a way to open up four pilot sites around the city, although they need the approval of the state health department under Gov. Andrew Cuomo before moving forward.
But if Denver wants any shot at limiting overdoses and related deaths, the city needs to at least try a safe injection site, according to Art Way, Colorado’s state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. He has high hopes the state will support the city’s efforts.
“You need to have a safe use site as a part of your comprehensive overdose strategy,” Way said. “You’re putting people in a place that says you’re welcome here, your life is valuable.” The legal concerns of many city officials may not amount to much anyway. Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania, is on the board of directors of the nonprofit responsible for getting Philadelphia’s facility off the ground. He told VICE News in October that he risked arrest as Philadelphia’s mayor in the early ‘90s when he approved a clean syringe exchange site called Prevention Point — but nothing ultimately happened.
“Why would anybody want to arrest a bunch of doctors and nurses and board members who aren’t getting paid with a laudable goal?” Rendell said. “For 26 years, Prevention Point has technically been violating federal law and nobody said boo to them.”
Opponents of the sites have also argued little evidence exists to support advocates’ claims that safe injection sites will drive down overdose deaths. That’s not true, according to Brooks, although he said more research is needed.
In 2014, for example, researchers published a review of 75 studies on the supervised injection sites, which found a correlation to safer drug use without any apparent increase in crime or dangerous drug use. On the other hand, detractors of the sites continually cite one September 2018 study, which argued the evidence supporting the sites wasn’t strong enough to show a positive effect on overdose deaths. That study has since been retracted over methodological flaws in its findings.
Cover image: Linda Montel shows off supplies on a check in desk at Safer Inside, a realistic model of a safe injection site in San Francisco, California on Aug. 29, 2018. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)