Nov 07, 2017
In semi-private booths, each with a chair and a mirror, Denver heroin users could shoot up with clean needles, no threat of arrest and under the supervision of staff trained to jump in with a life-saving antidote in case of overdose.
It would look more like a medical clinic than a party lounge, with floors and furniture that workers could hose down in the event of vomit or blood spills. Staffers would hand out sterile needles and possibly distilled water, but clients would bring their own drugs to cook and inject.
It’s called a supervised injection site, and Denver is on a path to become one of the first U.S. cities to open one — although doing so would require action by the City Council, the state legislature and possibly the federal government.
Seattle and San Francisco, ahead of Denver in planning, are attempting to open the first sites in this country, although there are more than 100 around the world.
Cities in Canada, Australia and Europe with supervised injection sites have seen fewer overdose deaths, reduced public drug use and decreased dropped syringes. A review of 75 studies found the sites were not linked to increased drug use or crime.
In Denver, officials supportive of the idea want fewer used needles dropped in city parks and hidden in the vines along the Cherry Creek bike path. They want fewer people using drugs in alleys along 16th Street Mall and overdosing in public bathroom stalls.
In 2016, 174 people died of overdoses in Denver. Twenty of them died in a public park, alley or bathroom.
Michael Torpacka, who first tried heroin at age 13, looks for empty alleys and bathrooms around downtown Denver multiple times a day to get his fix. Now 37, he lives on the city’s streets. He rushes through the cooking to boil his heroin. He rushes through the injection. He’s always nervous someone will see him and call police.
“You’re scared and you don’t have time to get this done,” he said Thursday.
Torpacka predicted Denver would see fewer needles in parks and along the river — and have fewer people using bathroom stalls to get high — if the city were to open a supervised injection site.
A plan to open a pilot site in Denver is part of legislation that won unanimous, bipartisan approval Tuesday from a 10-member legislative committee looking for solutions to Colorado’s opioid crisis. But the real test comes in January, when the General Assembly convenes and takes up the issue in its regular session.
The Denver City Council is intrigued, too. Council president Albus Brooks plans to lead a trip leaving Wednesday to Vancouver, British Columbia, to visit that city’s injection clinic, called InSite, which opened in 2003. It was the first in North America.