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Democrat-backed bill sanctioning safe drug use sites passes Colorado public health committee

Previous efforts to designate legal sites for drug users have failed to make it out of the Colorado Legislature.

(CN) — A controversial bill that would allow Colorado municipalities to establish overdose prevention centers passed the House Public and Behavioral Health and Human Services committee after seven hours of testimony on Wednesday along party lines.

If signed into law HB23-1202, the “Overdose Prevention Center Authorization” bill, would allow local control of sites where people suffering from drug addiction can take drugs under the supervision of staff equipped to respond to overdoses.

More than a “safe injection site,” proponents imagine clinics that would also provide addiction counselling, referral services, sterile equipment and drug testing.

Opponents of the measure worry the existence of such sites encourage drug use and enable addiction.

An estimated 1,400 people died of drug overdoses in Colorado last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state’s rate of overdose deaths, 25 per 100,000 in 2022, was nearly double the rate of Covid-19 deaths and four times the homicide rate.

The bill has support from nine Democratic senators and more than two dozen Democrats in the House of Representatives.

“We as legislatures are invited to make decisions based on facts and not fear,” said Democratic State Representative Elisabeth Epps, a sponsor of the bill, during opening remarks. “We have decades of a failed War on Drugs that resulted in folks being scared of people who use drugs.”

To date, New York City is the only place operating overdose prevention clinics in the U.S.

California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill last August that would have sanctioned the sites in the Golden State.

A pilot program approved by the Denver City Council in 2019 stalled without state guidance. The state Legislature last took up safe injection site legislation in 2018, but the measure failed in committee.

"We already have overdose prevention centers, they're staffed by baristas. I want them to come to my center instead,” said Lisa Raville, executive director of the Harm Reduction Center in Denver.

The bill was supported by members of the Boulder City Council, the Regional Transportation District and the numerous nonprofits that work with people who have drug addictions.

Although many people who recovered or are recovering from substance use disorders supported the bill, some with lived experience also opposed it for allowing drug users to avoid seeking treatment.

Racquel Garcia, a certified addiction counselor told lawmakers she became addicted to opiates after undergoing back and brain surgery.

“It’s not as easy as just making a different choice one day. Drugs don’t work that way,” said Garcia who supported the bill. “We’ve tried institutionalizing people, we’ve tried jails, but this is a public health issue and it’s going to take a community to fix.”

The greatest criticism came from members of the law enforcement community.

“We want to save lives,” said Greg Sadar, deputy police chief of Commerce City. “This particular bill creates a lot of problems in that we take an oath to uphold the laws and I can’t tell my officers to ignore the law.”

State Representative Richard Holtorf, the Republican's minority whip, listened intently throughout the hearing, offering to stay through 2 a.m. to discuss what he saw as very important issues. In actuality, the hearing wrapped up just before 8 p.m.

"We're going to continue to see death, we're going to continue to see addiction. The testimony that one-out-of-five restaurant workers is a drug user, that's troubling,” Holtorf said before casting a nay vote. “I don’t think the people in my county are ready for this. I don’t think the state is ready for this.”

It’s unclear whether the state's Democratic Governor Jared Polis would sign the bill if it passes the Legislature and lands on his desk.

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Categories / Government, Health, Politics, Regional

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