Colorado House set to consider bill on ‘overdose prevention centers’
Bill that would allow sites for people to use illicit drugs passes committee on party-line vote
Reps. Elisabeth Epps and Jenny Willford present their bill to allow overdose prevention centers in Colorado to the House Public and Behavioral Health and Human Services on March 1, 2023. (Sara Wilson/Colorado Newsline)
Colorado lawmakers are set to debate whether local governments should be able to sign off on sites where people can use drugs under medical supervision, a strategy that harm reduction experts say can reduce overdose deaths and connect people with resources.
House Bill 23-1202 passed its first committee hearing Wednesday on an 8-3 vote after hours of testimony and now heads to a vote of the entire chamber.
If passed and signed into law, the bill would give local governments the authority to allow the operation of so-called overdose prevention centers, sometimes known as safe injection sites. Typically, these sites would have medical staff on hand to administer overdose reversal drugs, provide sterile needles and clean drug paraphernalia, distribute fentanyl testing strips and offer other harm reduction services, including connecting people with counseling and substance abuse disorder treatment.
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“Drug use already happens in public spaces. An overdose prevention center would divert public drug use by people with an active addiction to a safe place where medical personnel are able to save lives,” said bill sponsor state Rep. Jenny Willford, a Northglenn Democrat.
Willford is sponsoring the legislation alongside Rep. Elisabeth Epps of Denver, Sen. Julie Gonzales of Denver and Sen. Kevin Priola of Henderson, all Democrats. It has the support of 27 other House Democrats, including the assistant majority leader, and five other Senate Democrats.
Democrats hold large majorities in both the House and Senate.
The centers would not be authorized to distribute drugs and the bill would not mandate the opening of any center, but it gives individual cities the ability to do so, which bill sponsors say empowers cities to be responsive to their individual needs. The city would lead discussions and policy making about where a center could be located, how it would be staffed and funded, how law enforcement would interact with it and any guardrails the community might want to set.
“This bill will open up a conversation we haven’t been able to have before with a solution that hasn’t been on the table,” Willford said. “I’ve heard from a lot of folks that their community isn’t ready for an overdose prevention center, and that is okay. They don’t have to be ready right this minute, ten minutes from now, or ever.”
There were 1,477 people who died from a drug overdose in 2020 in Colorado, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The rate of overdose deaths has increased in the state every year between 2010 and 2020.
“You have to be alive to be able to get well,” Epps said. “That’s what (this bill) is all about — helping our neighbors stay alive, saving lives and local control.”
Emphasis on harm reduction
Currently, New York City and Rhode Island allow overdose prevention centers. Supporters point to New York City’s OnPoint centers and its hundreds of reported overdose reversals across its two locations as evidence that the strategy is worth considering. In 2018, Denver City Council supported the creation of an overdose prevention center, but it needs support from the Legislature to get off the ground.
Lisa Raville, the executive director of the Denver-based Harm Reduction Action Center, testified that overdose prevention centers could be critical in curbing preventable deaths due to an unpredictable drug supply in which fentanyl is increasingly mixed in with other drugs.
The HRAC supplies people who use drugs with clean drug paraphernalia and works to connect them with services.
If a person uses a drug cut with fentanyl and accidentally overdoses, she said, they are more likely to survive at a site where someone can administer the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone.
Providing a safe space for drug users where they can consistently go and meeting them where they are — both physically and in their addiction — can also increase their chances of receiving treatment, supporters say. Raville said HRAC has done over 100,000 referrals to services over the last 11 years.
“We are a gateway. I don’t want to wait until you want to be abstinent for us to create a relationship,” she said. “We’re definitely having the treatment and recovery conversation. People thirst for that.”
“The number one substance use treatment admission requirement is that people need to be alive. If you support treatment and recovery, then you definitely support overdose prevention centers,” she said.
Alison Coombs, an Aurora City Council member, testified that addressing the public effects of addiction should not be a partisan issue.
“I have constituents of all stripes reaching out in support of addressing addiction and in support of providing options that people aren’t going to die of overdose in the process of seeking treatment,” she said.
Opponents of the legislation say that these sites could incentivize or enable drug use and lead to increased crime in the surrounding neighborhood.
“The associated crime that comes with this is really what’s problematic for local communities. To think that’s not going to wash across smaller, adjacent communities is naïve,” said Greg Sadar, Commerce City’s deputy police chief who spoke for the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police.
“We do want to see life-saving harm reduction efforts,” he said. “A free-for-all system like this where there is no quality control, no funding, no guardrails is not the way to deal with poisons like this.”
He also questioned how the centers could coexist with Colorado and federal law that outlaw certain drugs.
The three Republicans on the committee all voted against the bill.
“It is my life experience that drug abuse, misuse and addiction is not wellness. It is a sickness,” Republican Rep. Richard Holtorf of Akron said. “Embracing the drug culture is a sickness to society. I can’t equate drug abuse and addiction to wellness. There’s no way — I’m not going to cross that bridge.”
The bill has support from organizations including the Colorado Municipal League, the Colorado Psychiatric Society, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, the ACLU of Colorado and the Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council.
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