A Colorado bill to allow “safe injection sites” — where people can use illicit drugs under the supervision of trained staff who can reverse an overdose — was killed in committee Wednesday evening by Democrats concerned with enabling addiction and a lack of proper guardrails.
The controversial idea of such sites — which New York and Rhode Island, along with Canada and Australia already host — incited emotional debate as it moved through the Colorado’s Democratic-controlled legislature after the state’s record-high of over 1,600 overdose deaths in 2021.
Proponents argued that it’s an imperative first step to prevent drug overdoses that killed an estimated 100,000 people nationwide in 2021, federal data show. The safe injection sites, also called “overdose prevention centers,” offer a place where trained staff monitor people who bring and use their own drugs — such as methamphetamine and heroin — and who could reverse an overdose if necessary.
The policy is an about-face from federal government’s long-waged war on drugs, and detractors said the centers would merely endorse and promote the use of illegal drugs and would be a magnet for ancillary crimes.
After last ditch efforts by the bill’s sponsors to appease one of their Democratic colleagues on the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, the bill was voted down in an unceremonious and brusque vote Wednesday.
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Democratic Sen. Kyle Mullica, who voted against the bill, had previously said he was torn by the issue, worried about regulating the sites — which would be left up to local municipalities — and whether it was the most effective solution.
Similarly, Democratic Sen. Joann Ginal said she wasn’t convinced by the available evidence, before reading testimony from one of her constituents — a former drug user — who compared the bill to giving a kid who was overweight a jar of cookies.
Visitors stand on the west steps of the Colorado State Capitol, on April 23, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)
The bill’s failure reveals the wariness of Colorado’s moderate Democrats over some progressive measures in the once-purple state, even after the party’s sweeping success in the midterm elections and control of the House, Senate and governor’s office.
One of the bill’s sponsors, Democratic Sen. Julie Gonzales, pushed back against concerns, saying that “If we do not take action, one person who dies is too many.”
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis had voiced skepticism over the proposal, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a similar bill last year.
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Questions also remain over whether the Department of Justice will permit such programs based on a 1980s-era law that bans operating a place for taking illegal drugs.
Last year, the Justice Department told The Associated Press it was “evaluating” safe injection sites and talking to regulators about “appropriate guardrails.”
Still, being open to evaluating the sites marks a shift from the Justice Department’s posture under former President Donald Trump, when the department fought against such a proposal in Pennsylvania.