Denver, CO

Denver proclamation decries criminalization of drugs, incarceration

David Heitz
Thomas Hernandez of Tribe Recovery addresses the Denver City Council.Denver 8

By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver, Colo.) Several advocates for the harm reduction approach to managing addiction drew repeated cheers and applause Monday from a council chambers packed with people experiencing homelessness.

The harm reduction philosophy meets people where they are in their addiction. It does not assume sobriety for success, but rather, celebrates reductions in use.

One woman Monday expressed gratitude to Harm Reduction Action Center Monday for showing her how to “safely” inject drugs. That is, in a way that minimizes harm.

Betsy Craft, now a peer navigator with Denver Municipal Court, said she would have been dead several times over if not for Narcan. She said she battled “chaotic opioid abuse” for years and experienced “friends struggling to be seen as human beings.”

The crowd repeatedly erupted in cheers and applause for Craft. Harm Reduction Action Center gives people clean needles for injecting, so they don’t use dirty ones and spread disease. But HRAC also works to help people with addiction access other services. They even visit homeless encampments on hot days to pass out water.

From 2020 to 2021, fatal overdoses increased in Denver from 370 to 450, according to the Department of Public Health and Environment. Harm reduction advocates reason they save lives by making the overdose reversal drug Narcan available.

Not just one path to recovery

Thomas Hernandez of Tribe Recovery said there is no one way to recover. “Recovery is what you make of it. If we had more funding and more resources, it would be a whole lot better. It’s about to get a whole lot colder.”

A woman who lost her brother to overdose agreed, thanking the City Council for issuing a proclamation for International Overdose Awareness Day, which is Wednesday. “This Denver City Council denounces the criminalization and incarceration of people who use drugs,” the proclamation reads. “Overdose Awareness Day hopes to publicly challenge the stigma associated with drug use and overdose.”

As Craft said, people with drug problems often are looked down upon. “Overdose Awareness Day sends a strong message to current and former people who use drugs that their lives are valued,” the proclamation reads. “This day spreads the message that the tragedy of overdose death is preventable and empowers people to work together to prevent overdose as a community by prioritizing harm reduction initiatives such as naloxone, fentanyl testing strips, syringe access programs, overdose prevention sites, and a safe supply.”

Councilman Chris Hinds sponsored the proclamation. People experiencing homelessness attended the meeting to speak out against the closing of Quality Inn hotel, which has been used as a homeless shelter for the past two years.

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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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