Feds: Denver’s proposed supervised drug injection site illegal, like ‘crack houses’

DENVER -- The Colorado U.S. Attorney's Office and the Denver field office for the Drug Enforcement Administration published a joint statement against the capital city's plan to have a supervised injection site for drug users.

The Denver City Council recently passed an ordinance to allow for a pilot program that would start with one site. The site is intended to provide a safe place for injection that is supervised by trained staff, helping prevent overdose deaths and the transfer of preventable diseases. State lawmakers would have to approve the site when the next session begins in January.

In their statement, the U.S. Attorney's Office and DEA said the program is not the best way to solve the problem.

First, the authorities pointed out that the operation of such sites is illegal under federal law, as one is prohibited from the "maintaining of any premises for the purpose of using any controlled substance." They said penalties of violating that law include fines of up to $250,000 and up to 20 years in prison.

Officials also said that there is no evidence that the sites would actually reduce the number of drug-related deaths or make users more likely to seek help. They cited a review of a Vancouver injection site that found overdose deaths rates near the site were the highest in the Canadian city.

"This may be due in part to the fact that while these facilities are touted as being 'safe' because of the availability of opioid antagonists (e.g., Naloxone or Narcan), these facilities are not actually limited to opioid users. Those injecting methamphetamine, cocaine or other drugs for which there is no counteragent are also welcome to use the facility. The Denver facility likewise would welcome users of any drug, not just opioids," the statement reads.

The authorities did not include a source for the Vancouver study. However, a report from the College of Family Physicians of Canada said the following regarding the city's site:

“Of persons living within 500 meters of the SIS overdose deaths decreased," and, “There was no change in mortality in the rest of city.”

The U.S. Attorney's Office and DEA also said the injection site would increase public safety risks.

"Just like so-called crack houses, these facilities will attract drug dealers, sexual predators and other criminals, ultimately destroying the surrounding community," they said in the statement.

The offices also argued that having a government-sanctioned place for people to do drugs would normalize their use, therefore falsely teaching people that drugs can be done safely.

Finally, the authorities described the motives of those supporting the idea as "laudable," but said that their efforts must comply with federal law.

"Efforts that do not comply with federal law risk action by the U.S. Attorney’s Office using any and all federal remedies available," the release stated.

Denver Councilman Albus Brooks, who sponsored the ordinance, responded to the officials' statement:

"Last year, more than 1,000 of our neighbors in Colorado died of an overdose. As the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has continued to affirm, we are facing a national public health emergency, and cities are on the front lines. While we recognize the role of the federal government, we cannot wait for federal action while the death toll rises. These people are not simply addicts. They are our neighbors, friends and family members who are experiencing addiction. As a designated local public health department, the city through the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment has the authority under law to address and regulate this type of emergency. Extensive research and global precedent demonstrate that supervised use sites save lives. Choosing not to save the lives of our neighbors is an injustice that threatens to destabilize the very foundation of our society. This is a piece of a larger plan to address this epidemic, and as leaders we know that saving lives takes precedent over politics. Now is the time to act," Brooks said.

Brooks also said that studies have shown that supervised use sites save lives while not increasing crime.

"They do not increase crime in the areas where they are located and save money by reducing the number of 911 calls, ambulance responses, hospital stays and treatment for transferable diseases," Brooks' statement reads.

Brooks did not provide a citation for the studies supporting his statement.

Denver would be the first U.S. city with such a site. However, more than 60 cities in other countries currently have a similar program. Denver's pilot site would be monitored for two years.

The site would also help connect drug users with treatment and health care support, according to Brooks.

Governor-elect Jared Polis told FOX31 and Channel 2 reporter Joe St. George Tuesday that his stance on the program remains unchanged: He still has no position on the issue and he will be looking at it more closely as the issue is discussed in the General Assembly.

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