“We know that dead drug users do not have the opportunity for recovery.”
Lisa Raville is trying to make sure every drug user stays alive long enough to get that opportunity.
As the executive director of Denver’s Harm Reduction Action Center, she works hand-in-hand with one of the most vulnerable groups in our community—drug users and people living with addiction. Right now she’s joining forces with lawmakers to provide drug users with a safe place to inject drugs.
“We’re calling it a Supervised Consumption Site. We’re taking injecting out of the public sphere and putting it into a controlled environment,” she said.
The measure may sound unusual—creating a place for people to inject controlled substances in order to fight the epidemic. It is extreme. It is out-of-the-box. But, supporters argue extreme measures are necessary to combat an extreme problem.
Preliminary figures released last month show more than 72,000 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2017. That’s the most drug deaths in history—about 200 every, single day. In Colorado, the National Vital Statistics show 1,052 people died from drugs last year. That’s an increase of nearly 8 percent over 2016.
The most recent data out of the National Institute on Drug Abuse found members of the LGBTQ community were more than twice as likely to use illegal drugs. That was in 2015. Figures from the 2013 U.S. Census broke it down even further, and the numbers are staggering.
One analysis showed LGB teens were 90 percent more likely to use drugs than heterosexual adolescents. Those numbers may be even higher today, but we won’t know because President Donald Trump removed the LGBTQ community from the nation’s record keeping systems.
These statistics are concerning, and politicians are taking note. Colorado State Representative Jonathan Singer, who worked as a social worker before being elected to office, is concerned about what is currently being done.
“I’ve read the autopsy reports for children whose parents were too high to care for them, and I even had to try and explain to one child why their parent wasn’t coming home after a drug-related binge,” he said.
Singer plans to introduce a bill in the next legislative session to try and get drug addicts off the streets and into a safe place. He sponsored what he called an Overdose Prevention Site measure earlier this year that would have created a pilot program in Denver. That bill failed, but he said he plans to move forward even more aggressively.
“I’d like to see a more robust version of the bill in 2019 that would allow for several pilot sites across the state to see how effective it is in different geographic areas,” he said.
Here’s how the program would work. Designated sites would provide clean and sterile cubicles for drug users to inject. Trained professionals would be on hand, in case of an overdose. Clean needles and supplies would be provided, but addicts would need to bring their own drugs. It would not be paid for with taxpayer money and could only happen with the approval of local city councils.
“We’re trying to do something different. We went a long time without doing anything and the rates skyrocketed and we lost too many people,” said Raville. “If stigma, shame, and incarceration worked with drug use, we’d have wrapped this up years ago. All that does is drive use underground.”
Raville said the average heroin user injects three to five times a day. Cocaine addicts inject up to 15 times a day. And those who abuse methamphetamines inject about once or twice a day. Raville said she believes community support is strong because people want to get drug addicts out of parks, alleys, churches, and private business bathrooms where they currently use.
“Not only are people overdosing in public spaces, the larger community is coming up and finding them,” she said.
Not everyone is on board, like Tom Gorman. Gorman is the director of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area and the co-chair of The Heroin Response Work Group, and he coordinates local, state, and federal drug agencies to try and stop this epidemic.
“As a cop, we’re against it because it’s against the law,” he said.
Gorman points to three reasons why he said Supervised Consumption Sites are not a good idea. First of all, he believes it is against state and federal law. Second, he feels it will normalize drug use and make it more acceptable. Finally, he argues it’s not a good idea to create a place for drug addicts to all gather in one place.
“When you bring [drug users] together, you’re creating an environment that drug dealers know where to go,” he said.
Raville acknowledged drug use is against the law, but feels that we can’t afford to wait. “I don’t think we can wait for the feds to be able to push forward when we are in the midst of an overdose epidemic,” she said.
As for the other arguments, she said her agency sees up to 150 drug addicts every, single day. They’ve participated in their needle exchange program right across the street from Colorado’s State Capital for several years. And, she said, they do not see drug dealers coming around or an increase in crime.
“People go out of their way to be loving, kind, and generous to each other, because there’s no other place like this they can talk realistically about their drug use,” Raville said.
Both Raville and Singer point to the more than 100 injection sites around the world as proof they save lives. Currently, there are sites in at least 66 cities within nine countries.
“In over 30 years, no one’s ever died of an overdose there because there’s been a trained professional there to recognize and respond,” said Raville.
In the United States, New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, and Philadelphia have all announced plans to open safe injection clinics as well.
“The research across 66 cities worldwide paints a very different picture where people’s lives are being saved, and needles are no longer littering parks, sidewalks, and alleys,” said Rep. Singer.
Vancouver is the first North American city to have injection sites. And while most of the studies are positive, Gorman said the figures may not be accurate, and it’s important to dig deeper.
“When looking at Vancouver, talk to law enforcement; they will tell you it’s terrible. The cops who can talk, that is,” Gorman said. “Be skeptical. Just don’t buy it because you hear it.”
In Colorado, the measure has the support of many people within the health community. More than 40 doctors, addiction professionals, people in recovery, and local government officials testified in favor of the measure that failed in February.
“Supervised Use is not about condoning drug use,” Singer said. “It’s about telling our struggling neighbors and friends that we want them to stay alive long enough to get help. We wouldn’t withhold insulin from a diabetic after they drank too much Mountain Dew to teach them a lesson.”
Singer plans to get to work after the midterm elections to ensure his newly elected colleagues understand an Overdose Prevention Site will save lives without increasing crime.
For his part, Gorman will continue fighting the drug war in Colorado, Utah, Montana, and Wyoming. With more than 50 years of law enforcement experience, he recognizes not everyone takes the same path, but they are all working toward the same destination—to put a dent in this drug epidemic.
Raville said she is just being practical. Drug treatment is difficult to get into, and even when you do, it usually takes time. In the meantime, she wants drug users to have a safe space that gets them out of the streets and into an arena where they can get help if they want it.
“As a service provider in your community, I’m telling you this is what we need. They know the world wants them abstinent, and for one reason or another, it’s not gonna happen today.”