Colorado considers ‘safe injection sites’ to prevent overdoses

The Canadian Press, Darryl Dyck/via AP
Registered nurse Sammy Mullally holds a tray of supplies to be used by a drug addict at the Insite safe injection clinic in Vancouver, B.C., May 11, 2011.

In a Colorado mountain town, Christine Collins injected herself with black tar heroin while hanging out with friends in a cozy basement a few days after her 30th birthday. Sitting beneath a “Happy Birthday” sign with hearts scrawled in colorful sharpies, she overdosed.

She awoke on the floor, her friends screaming as they fumbled to administer the overdose-reversing naloxone, which pulled Collins back from near death.

Collins, now 33 and clean from heroin, has seen dozens of friends wake up from overdoses, and known dozens more that never did.

“I don’t make friends anymore because I don’t want to see anyone else die," she said.

Such scenes of terror have increasingly played out from Denver's snow-filled streets to rural West Virginia, with drug overdoses killing over an estimated 100,000 people in 2021, according federal health official's latest data. That's roughly one overdose death every five minutes.

The snowballing death toll has pushed lawmakers in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada to consider joining New York and Rhode Island in allowing what are often called “safe injection sites." Also called “overdose prevention centers,” these are places where people can use drugs under the supervision of trained staff who could reverse an overdose if necessary.

Democratic lawmakers in Colorado pushed the controversial bill forward in committee Wednesday. While Democrats control the state's legislature, the measure faces steep odds amid broad backlash from police, Republicans, and lingering questions about whether the sites are even legal in the United States.

The idea of sanctioning the use of drugs including heroin and methamphetamine on these sites — an about-face from the long-waged war on drugs — has garnered stiff pushback.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Republican state Rep. Gabe Evans at the state Capitol, March 1, 2023.

“You’re basically sending a message that, ‘Hey, it’s OK to do this,’" said Colorado Rep. Gabe Evans, a Republican and former police officer. That not only imperils the health of drug users, Evans argued, but encourages dealers and invites crime that threatens nearby residents.

But proponents argue it’s an imperative first step to tackling drug use, with many repeating a one-argument refrain.

“You can’t enter treatment if you are dead,” said Dr. Joshua Barocas, an associate professor at the University of Colorado who studies substance use disorder. “All the data suggests that people are going to do drugs regardless. ... All we are trying to do is reverse the harm that could come from what people are already doing.”

The trend is growing internationally with centers in Canada, Australia and Europe, but in the U.S. questions remain over whether the Department of Justice will permit such programs amid pushback that the sites merely enable illegal drug use and attract the ancillary crime.

Last year, the Justice Department told The Associated Press it was “evaluating” such facilities and talking to regulators about “appropriate guardrails.” The department did not immediately respond to requests for updated information from the AP this week.

Being open to evaluating the sites marks a shift from the Justice Department's posture under former President Donald Trump, when the department fought against such a proposal in Pennsylvania, arguing that such facilities violate a 1980s-era law which bans operating a place for taking illegal drugs.

Safe Injection Sites
A sign on the wall reads "This site save lives" in Spanish and English at an overdose prevention center at OnPoint NYC in New York, Feb. 18, 2022. Across the U.S., drug overdoses killed an estimated 100,000 people in 2021, according to federal health officials. That has pushed lawmakers in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada to consider joining New York in allowing what are often called “overdose prevention centers" — spaces where people can use illicit drugs under the supervision of trained staff who could reverse an overdose if necessary. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

Data from sites both in and outside the U.S. found that they can prevent overdoses, with New York City's centers stopping more than 150 in their tracks within three months of operating. The centers also typically include equipment, such as sterile syringes, and offer resources for drug users to find treatment.

Existing studies, such as a 2021 report from the Boston-based Institute for Clinical and Economic Review, show that sites are linked to fewer ambulance calls — potentially saving taxpayer dollars — and didn't metastasize various crime rates in neighborhoods of operation.

In Wednesday’s hearing, Jason Dunn, a former U.S. attorney for Colorado, pushed back against the data. A life may be saved when an overdose is reversed, said Dunn, but that doesn't mean "these facilities reduce the overdose death rate over the long term or even reduce drug usage over the long term.”

In Nevada's Democratic-controlled Legislature a proposal to legalize safe injection sites is on the table but has yet to get a hearing, one year after a similar push failed. In New Mexico, a similar bill faces unknown prospects.

Even while a long list of health care organizations have signed on in support of Colorado's bill — including the Colorado Nurses Association, Colorado Psychiatric Society and Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council — the legislation faces an uphill battle.

While Democrats in Colorado hold majorities in both chambers, Gov. Jared Polis has vocalized his concern over the proposal. The governor's spokesperson, Conor Cahill, said in a statement Monday that the governor “would be deeply concerned with any approach that would contribute to more drug use and lawlessness.”

Colorado's Democratic leadership in the legislature have signaled interested in the proposal, but they've stopped short of full-blown support.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Democratic state Sen. Kevin Priola at the Capitol, March 1, 2023.

State Sen. Kevin Priola, a former Republican who defected to the Democratic Party last year citing concerns over the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, is one of the bill's sponsors. Priola said he's felt the power of prescription painkillers first hand, having weaned himself early off the drugs following a ski accident that broke his leg.

“I could’ve been a statistic myself,” said Priola, who added that the opposition to such proposals stems from a deep-seated stigma. “People fear what they don’t understand, and they’ve never walked a mile in some of these folks' shoes.”

Collins has watched the scourge of fentanyl rip through communities as she moved from Florida to Louisiana and finally Colorado and believes legalizing the centers is the bare minimum to keep people breathing.

“I know they say: ‘Oh, whatever, it just enables junkies,’” she said. “The fact of the matter is that we may be junkies, but we are somebody’s f—cking families.”