GREELEY — Top law enforcement officials won’t play a wait and see game to find out if Weld County joins seven other counties in Colorado in funding a Syringe Access (AKA needle exchange) program designed to keep heroin users safe from Hepatitis C and HIV.
Instead, they are speaking out on the issue, hoping they can get the public on their side and persuade a unanimous board of conservative commissioners in Weld to reject the idea being brought by the Northern Colorado AIDS Project (NCAP) and Dr. Mark Wallace, the executive director for the Weld County Department of Public Health and Environment.
The NCAP is hoping to house the facility at its existing location on 9th Street near downtown Greeley, where it currently offers educational and referral services only.
Greeley Police Chief Jerry Garner, whose department would be taxed with the responsibly of policing any issues developing from the program, is adamantly opposed.
“Yes, there are public health values, basically you have a healthier group of addicts,” Garner said. “But it does nothing for public safety. There is no component in the needle exchange program that’s intended to wean off these addicts off these drugs. You’re facilitating drug abuse. You’re giving them everything except the drug itself.”
SAPs are designed to give intravenous drug users a place to get clean needles for free, without fear of arrest or retribution. Program implementation varies by county. In Larimer County, where NCAP operates the only SAP in Northern Colorado, services include new syringes, injection equipment (such as cotton, burners, etc.), disposal, counseling and other referrals.
Local law enforcement officials, such as Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams, are looking to law enforcement official in areas where SAPs are already in place for proof of their concerns.
Larimer County Sheriff, Justin Smith, said his opinion of the program hasn’t changed in the five years since it began operation in Fort Collins in 2012.
“When this came through my county, my comment was, ‘If we’re going to give them clean needles, how long before we give them free drugs?’” Smith said, adding he believes it’s only a matter of time before communities with SAPs add safe injection facilities. “In my mind, if we take steps to condone behavior were going to see more of it.”
Safe injection facilities allow injection-drug addicts to shoot up under supervision to avoid overdose and death. Denver City Council is considering a safe injection facility but needs legislation from state lawmakers first.
Smith said the stated goals for Larimer were to reduce the dirty needles and protect the public from communicable disease, but he has seen no proof it’s working.
“Heroin abuse is through the roof in recent years,” Smith said. “It certainly hasn’t improved the condition here. I think it was a mistake to have done it.”
Smith said although he can’t say heroin is the lone problem, he does know felony drug convictions in the 8th Judicial district, which is comprised mostly of Larimer county, have climbed rapidly the past few years, from 585 in 2014, to 1,116 in 2015, to 1,748 in 2016 and through the third quarter of 2017 that number is 1,712.
“Heroin was a real unknown over here for a long time, you occasionally ran across it,” Smith said. “Fatal overdoses are up tremendously in recent years. It really shot up.” Do I think the needle exchange was the direct cause? I don’t believe so, but it certainly didn’t help. Is it a contributing factor? I believe it is, simply because it’s brought the attitude that ‘oh it’s not a big deal.’”
Not all officials are against SAPs, however. Evans Police Chief Rick Brandt is torn over their effect.
“From a public safety perspective, I see value in some things like not have needles improperly disposed of in our communities,” Brandt said. “We’re finding needles in our public bathrooms, parks and play grounds. So, if there is a place where dependent users can properly dispose of these needles I’m in support of that. I also see value in trying to curb the spread of diseases like Hep C and HIV, that helps reduce the exposure of my officers to needle pricks that might infect them.”
He also finds value in the educational resources users are given when they come in for new needles.
“Some of the data I’ve seen, suggests some folks actually pick up on this and are able to break the cycle of addiction. If they are no longer users they probably won’t have to break into cars and homes to support their habit. So, my crime rates go down and my citizens aren’t victimized.”
At the same time, he has many of the same concerns of his colleagues.
“It’s really not going to significantly reduce crime rates,” Brandt said. “I know there is some data that suggests it might, but folks that use, they are still going to have to find ways to buy their narcotics. And many of them are going to resort to illegal ways to do that. So, giving them access to free needles probably isn’t going to affect the crime rate much.”
He also said there is that NIMBY (not in my back yard) syndrome that he buys into.
“We can say there are some positives on the public health and public safety side of the equation, but there are some legitimate concerns that it may draw some people to that location,” Brandt said. “So, you might see an increase in homelessness and panhandling. And those kinds of things do concern me.”
Garner said he understands and agrees in the idea that over time the addicted person becomes healthier, but it’s not enough to convince him it’s the right thing to do.
“It doesn’t do anything for public safety because folks are still going to commit crimes in order to get their drugs to put in those needles,” Garner said.
Garner added it’s tough for him to buy into a program that expects criminals to do the right thing.
“Many addicts are not what you would call responsible people,” Garner said, not convinced all needles handed out will be returned. “Now you’ve got them spread out all over the town for my officers to stick their hands on or kids to pick them up. You’re putting more needles out there, so I’m not clear on how that’s a huge benefit.”
Most of the success in starting SAPs has come from excluding law enforcement officials from the talks, Smith said.
“You look up members of those committees, and you ask them why they voted for it, and they say, ‘well they marched in a bunch of doctors that told us this was a good idea,’” Smith said of conversations he’s had with others who support the program. “I said how about marching in a few sheriffs that will tell you what a bad idea it is?”
That is exactly what Reams is hoping for when Wallace and the NCAP representatives go before the commissioners for a work session at 1:30 p.m. on Jan. 9 at the Weld Administrative offices, 1150 0 St., Greeley.
Reams and Garner will both attend the work session hoping they get a chance to talk commissioners out of the idea. Brandt said he won’t attend the work session because Evans City Council isn’t prepared for him to take a position because there isn’t enough information in either direction, he said.
“I see any kind of these programs as one more tool in the box to try to address the problem,” Brandt said. “But, no single program is going to work by itself. I think if you did this multidisciplinary approach, public health, public safety, harm reduction, it’s probably our best opportunity to try to head this problem off. It’s a very complex issue, if there was an easy solution we probably would have figured it out by now.”
Reams calls it a self-inflicted problem, one he said, won’t be solved by handing out free needles.
“I don’t see where this benefits Weld County at all,” Reams said. “In Seattle, where they have safe rooms where you can go get your clean needles and then go shoot up safely, guess where the heroin sales are taking place? Right outside the facility, why wouldn’t they?”
Garner agreed, adding he doesn’t know exactly how a program like this will impact heroin-associated crime in Greeley, but his many years of experience in law enforcement lead him to believe it won’t be positive.
“A lot of folks seem to think the program will be fine so long as you put it in Greeley, I don’t tend to look at it that way,” Garner said. “If you’re making it easier to get your fix, why wouldn’t you have more folks who are addicted to drugs and crime in Greeley than you otherwise might have. If you’re a drug addict in Fort Lupton or Eaton or wherever, now you have a convenient place you can come get your supplies. That’s going to give you more addicts in Greeley.”
Editor’s Note: Complete Colorado reporter Sherrie Peif, wrote two parts to this story. The other part, which takes a closer look at the program being proposed for Weld County, can be found in the monthly magazine “The Best of Greeley.”