Colorado lawmakers kill bill that would’ve let Denver open a safe-drug use site

Hours after Denver officials announced that more than 450 residents fatally overdosed here last year, Colorado lawmakers voted Wednesday to shelve a bill that would have allowed a safe-drug use site to open in the city.

A bipartisan group of state senators on the Health and Human Services Committee voted to indefinitely postpone HB23-1202, six days after the bill’s sponsors scrambled to save it at an initial committee hearing that showed the measure didn’t have enough support to pass. The proposal, which would have given Denver — or any other willing city — the OK to allow a safe-use site to open, passed the House comfortably in March. But its fate was sealed last week, when a key Democratic vote on the Senate committee indicated he opposed the bill.

“We are in a public health crisis that has led to thousands of Coloradans losing their lives, thousands of families suffering,” Sen. Julie Gonzales, the Denver Democrat who co-sponsored the bill in the Senate with Sen. Kevin Priola, said after the vote. “Even with all of the tools that we currently have in the toolbox, we are seeing too many Coloradans suffer and die from preventable overdose deaths.”

Supporters of the bill described safe-use sites — where people can consume illicit substances under the care of mental health providers — as vital tools to combat the ongoing overdose crisis, which has killed thousands of Coloradans and tens of thousands of Americans in recent years. The emergence and dominance of fentanyl has significantly destabilized the illicit drug supply, and officials elsewhere in the country — including Rhode Island and New York City — have opened or plan to open similar facilities in an effort to curb deaths.

The bill, a similar version of which failed years ago, had the support of a group of public health officials, the Colorado Municipal League, physicians and advocates who work with drug users. Supporters had cast the measure as a pro-local control bill: No community would be required to allow a site to open, and they couldn’t do so without local leaders holding a public meeting first. Only Denver currently has an ordinance that allows such sites to open, albeit with a key provision that the legislature signs off first.

Lisa Raville, who runs Denver’s Harm Reduction Action Center and has advocated for safe-use sites for years, called the vote “incredibly disappointing.”

“Here you have one evidence-based, data-backed intervention that’s been running for 30 years internationally, versus nothing. And today they chose nothing,” she said. Raville came to the Capitol for the vote Wednesday after teaching a class at a local bar about how to recognize and respond to overdoses. “So more people will die, and more people will die publicly.”

On Wednesday afternoon, the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment said in a press release that there were 453 fatal drug overdoses in the city last year, a slight decline from the year before. Statewide, more than 1,650 people fatally overdosed in 2022, according to preliminary data from the state Department of Public Health and Environment. Those totals have climbed in recent years as fentanyl has flooded the illicit drug supply, though 2022 represented a rare, albeit slight, drop in overdose deaths.

Opponents castigated the proposal as enabling drug use. House Republicans filibustered the bill into the early morning hours in March, and House Minority Leader Rep. Mike Lynch called the bill “poorly thought out” in a statement Wednesday evening. Estes Park Police Chief David Hayes, who also serves as the head of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, also praised the vote.

“We’re happy about the outcome,” he said. “From the beginning, we were of the opinion that money should be spent for treatment and education and for services, as opposed to a place to continue to use drugs.”

The bill, which was also co-sponsored by House Democratic Reps. Elisabeth Epps and Jenny Willford, nearly died on April 20, when the same Senate committee heard several hours of testimony and planned to vote on the bill’s fate. After testimony ended, the needed swing vote on the committee — Thornton Democratic Sen. Kyle Mullica — indicated he planned to vote no because of regulatory and implementation concerns.

With all three Republicans on the committee and fellow Democratic Sen. Joann Ginal all set to vote no, Mullica’s opposition would sink the bill.

“There’s no parameters around (the sites),” Mullica said last week, adding that there was “no licensing, there’s nothing coming from the state.”

Gonzales then spoke up and asked that the bill be laid over in a bid to amend the legislation to assuage Mullica’s concerns. The final vote was eventually delayed to Wednesday. Even if it had passed, the measure likely faced a difficult path to becoming law: Senate President Steve Fenberg said he had reservations about the policy and wasn’t sure it would pass his chamber, and Gov. Jared Polis’s office previously said he was “deeply concerned” about it.

Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, who voted yes, said the bill would’ve “put science behind our health care policy.” A battery of physicians and health officials testified in favor of the measure last week.

The bill would’ve had the most immediate impact on Denver, given the 2018 ordinance its City Council passed that allows a site to open — with the legislature’s permission. That caveat has frustrated advocates in the years since. Gonzales noted that a new council and new mayor will take office in the city in the coming weeks.

“In 2018, the council was waiting for permission to take action. It’s been five years,” she said. “I think there are new opportunities to have a new set of conversations with the Denver City Council.”

The measure is the latest progressive bill to die in the Capitol. On Tuesday, a measure that would’ve allowed local governments to enact rent control policies also failed in a Senate committee. A bill to ban the sale or purchasing of assault weapons failed in the House, and other measures have been watered down. Progressive lawmakers, particularly those in the House, have grown increasingly frustrated with what they see as a stifling of their bills in favor of a more moderate approach.

Democrats have a supermajority in the House and a near-supermajority in the Senate. Gonzales alluded to those dynamics after the vote Wednesday.

“The fact that the health committee could not listen to the public health experts, in a Democratic majority — the broadest majorities that this state has seen in a generation — to address the public health crisis is incredibly disappointing,” Gonzales said. “We know there is more work to do, and so we will do it because in order to engage in this work, you have to be an optimist.”

The safe-use site proposal is likely to return, lawmakers said. Rep. Chris deGruy Kennedy, a Lakewood Democrat, is chairing a committee this summer to examine the opioid crisis. He told The Denver Post on Wednesday that studying safe-use sites, with an eye toward bringing legislation again next year, will be a priority. That committee will include supporters of the safe-use site bill, like Priola and Epps, deGruy Kennedy said. But it’s also set to include Mullica.

For her part, Raville said she was tired of waiting for more studies and votes.

“I wanted it five years and 1,600 drug-related deaths ago in Denver,” she said. “That’s when I wanted it.”

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