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Denver Post Examines Efforts to Establish Needle-Exchange Programs in Colorado

May 18, 2009

The Denver Post on Friday examined efforts to establish needle-exchange programs in Colorado to reduce the risk of HIV and hepatitis C among injection drug users. According to the Post, 185 cities in Colorado have needle-exchange programs, but legislation that would have legalized needle exchanges statewide did not advance in the Legislature this year. "The issue is more complex than it perhaps first appears," Evan Dreyer, a spokesperson for Gov. Bill Ritter (D), said, adding that "law enforcement and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment both expressed serious reservations" about a proposal that would have legalized needle-exchanges statewide.

A coalition of public health officials, treatment providers and advocates are increasing efforts to establish a needle-exchange program in Denver, the Post reports. The Denver Drug Strategy Commission in February recommended that Mayor John Hickenlooper consider a pilot needle-exchange program, DDSC Director Karla Maraccini said. The commission is looking at different programs to develop a model following Hickenlooper's request for additional research. However, Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey has concerns that a local needle-exchange program would violate state law, according to Morrissey's spokesperson Lynn Kimbrough. Eric Brown, a spokesperson for Hickenlooper, added, "Anything in contradiction to city or state law would have to be carefully considered."

Proponents of needle-exchange programs say they prevent HIV and hepatitis C, but opponents say they condone injection drug use. Mark Thrun, director of HIV prevention for Denver Public Health, said, adding that needle-exchange programs prevent IDUs from "getting these chronic, potentially fatal diseases" and give public health workers "an opportunity to link them into treatment; and it lessens the economic burden on the already overburdened health care system." Thrun noted that several studies have found that needle-exchange programs do not encourage or prolong injection drug use and make IDUs more likely to seek treatment. In addition, a 2005 CDC study found that 86% of exchange programs make treatment referrals and that more than 80% offer counseling and testing for HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C.

Nancy Steinfurth, executive director of the Hep C Connection, noted that an estimated 10% of HIV cases and 70% of hepatitis C cases are transmitted through needles (Auge, Denver Post, 5/15).

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