Denver, CO

Denver wants to spend $240,000 to hand out clean needles

David Heitz
Diana Polekhina/Unsplash

The Denver City Council will vote Monday to spend $240,000 on syringes for drug users.

The Department of Public Health and Environment will award the contract to Colorado Non-Profit Development Center, doing business as Harm Reduction Action Center, to provide syringe access to Denver residents. HRAC will distribute needles at 112 E. 8th Ave.

According to a city memo, paying for the needles fits into the city's goals to fight the opioid crisis by ensuring people who inject drugs have access to clean syringes.

Giving addicts needles is known as harm reduction. The goal is to provide clean syringes to stop people from sharing dirty needles and risk contracting HIV and other diseases.

Harm reduction foes criticize plan

People have been attending City Council meetings and speaking against harm reduction in recent weeks. Two regular speakers criticized harm reduction on Tuesday.

"Unhoused campers are not on the street because they lost their job or that Denver's housing is expensive," said Craig Arfsten. "They're on the street because they typically have an addiction to meth, heroin, or fentanyl and/or have a severe mental illness. If the city is serious about helping the unhoused campers, then Denver must provide a path to recovery rather than a one-bedroom apartment with harm reduction knocking at their door weekly hoping they'll magically find recovery."

Lisa Raville, executive director of HRAC, disagrees with that assessment. "In a magical world there would be no drugs, but we live here and there is one safe thing that folks can do today," she said.

"If stigma, shame, and incarceration worked with drug use we would have wrapped this issue up years ago. All that has done is drive use underground where folks have garnered preventable chronic diseases such as HIV, viral hepatitis, and overdose. We are doing something different."

But Arfsten argues, "We need to stop enabling at rock bottom and help get the unhoused campers on the road to recovery."

Man loses friend to meth after harm reduction

Terry Hildebrandt, a Golden Triangle resident, agrees with Arfsten. He lost his best friend to an overdose. "I want to talk to you today about the dangerous policies and practices of so-called harm reduction, which is really harm induction and can lead to death," he said.

His friend, who lived in California, became addicted to drugs and contracted HIV. A counselor told him he could manage his drug use because abstinence was unrealistic for many people.

"My best friend would be alive today if he had fully stopped using meth and joined a 12-step group and inpatient drug treatment like many other friends of mine have done."

Why supporters say harm reduction works

Harm reduction has been successful, Raville said. "Harm reduction is about reducing the health, social, and economic harms to individuals, communities, and society of high-risk behaviors."

The effort focuses on helping people minimize drug and alcohol dangers.

"Harm reduction recognizes that perfectionism is often the enemy of the good," Raville said.

"Harm reduction recognizes that it is possible to have a far greater positive impact by getting a large number of people to make small changes than by getting only a few people to make large changes."

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at local newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am living proof that people can rebound from mental illness with proper treatment, even after experiencing homelessness. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living here.

Denver, CO

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