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The Heroin Fix: Denver Explores Supervised Injection Sites

By Mark Ackerman and Brian Maass

DENVER (CBS4)- The City of Denver is considering the idea of providing drug users with a safe place to shoot up. It's an unconventional idea, but CBS4 has confirmed City Council President Albus Brooks plans to travel to Canada in November to tour supervised injection facilities there, and Denver's Department of Environmental Health is actively researching the idea.

"We're looking at it," said Bob McDonald, the Director of Denver's Environmental Health department. "Doing a lot of research as a lot of questions need to be answered," said McDonald. "The reason we are looking at it is it needs to be addressed; it is a public health issue."

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In August, Brooks publicly backed a proposal to bring supervised injection facilities to Denver after revealing he fought opioid addiction while battling cancer.

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Denver City Council President Albus Brooks (credit: CBS)

Supervised injection facilities are places where people can bring drugs and inject them with medical professionals nearby, ready to reverse an overdose. The goal is to prevent overdose deaths. Such sites are already established in Canada and other countries but there are none in the United States.

"Dead drug users do not have the opportunity for recovery," said Lisa Raville, executive director of the HARM Reduction Action Center, which is driving the effort to establish supervised injection facilities in Colorado.

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Raville runs a needle exchange program across the street from the state Capitol that already provides addicts with sterile syringes and other clean paraphernalia needed to inject heroin.

"People are already using," she said. "I'm making it safer and healthier," by providing clean needles to prevent the spread of HIV and other diseases associated with intravenous drug use, said Raville. She said she already has a donor willing to commit $20,000. To fund a safe injection facility in Denver. Raville has expressed optimism that a safe injection site will be established in Denver in the near future.

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Over the past three years, more than 2,662 people in Colorado have died from drug overdoses. Last year alone, 912 died in the state from opioid overdoses, more than ever before.

Click on the interactive map for a county-by-county breakdown of overdose, opiate and heroin deaths over the past three years.

Raville believes many overdose deaths could be prevented if people had the option of using drugs at a supervised injection facility where they could be revived if they went too far.

"According to the coroner's office at least 20 people died in a park, a stairwell or in a business bathroom in the City and County of Denver in 2016," she said.

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Dan Scales (credit: CBS)

Dan Scales thinks supervised injection sites would help, after he encountered two people overdosing near his pharmacy, Scales Pharmacy. Scales performed chest compressions on a man who overdosed on a park bench, but wasn't able to save him. A second man overdosed inside the bathroom of his pharmacy. He was able to use narcan, an antidote for overdoses, and keep the man alive until paramedics arrived.

"Businesses are terrified of having overdoses in their bathrooms and having employees and their customers deal with that," said Scales who is now representing a coalition of 30 businesses, from restaurants to movie theaters, which are now backing supervised injection facilities in Denver.

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The Denver and Colorado Medical Societies are also supporting the idea of establishing safe injection facilities in Denver.

Jenna Espinoza, a spokesperson for Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, told CBS4 "We have not seen any draft legislation and do not take positions on bills at the state before they are introduced."

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Brooks said legislative changes would be needed at both the state and municipal level before any safe injection sites could be stablished in Denver.

LINK: Supporters of Supervised Injection Facilities

Mark Ackerman is a Special Projects Producer at CBS4. Follow him on Twitter @ackermanmark

CBS4 Investigator Brian Maass has been with the station more than 30 years uncovering waste, fraud and corruption. Follow him on Twitter @Briancbs4.

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