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Colorado fights opioid epidemic
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By James Mejía

Ariel Britt’s business card reads: The Phoenix – Rise, Recover, Live. That is exactly what the recovering opioid addict, turned Youth Program Manager is doing. Britt is six years clean and in her role at the Denver non-profit, helps others turn away from opiates and toward positive pursuits.

“I am in long term recovery. When I was into my addiction, I felt isolated and without hope. Now I am transformed. As an aunt, and college graduate, I am doing more living than dying. My calling is to help provide hope and possibility to others.” said Britt. She acknowledges her addictive personality and seeks “healthy endorphins” by working out at Phoenix.

Described as a ‘sober active community’, the Phoenix headquarters in downtown Denver offers physical activity for those recovering. The center provides 10 options including running, skiing and yoga.

Britt shared her story at the November ‘Public Meeting on Opioids in Denver’ co-hosted by State Representative, Leslie Herod, Denver City Councilman, Albus Brooks, and Harm Reduction Action Center Executive Director, Lisa Raville. Besides allowing a forum to exchange information about the extent of the opioid crisis and share resource referrals, the hosts discussed a Denver pilot program to allow a safe place for opioid addicts to use the drug.

Called ‘Supervised Consumption Services’ (SCS) or ‘Safer Injection Facilities’ (SIF), the sites are designed to centralize opioid use under the supervision of staff trained to keep users safe and offer counseling, health services, and social service referrals. The goal of the SCS is to minimize neighborhood impact, which users would otherwise frequent, and offer early intervention when users are willing.

The idea of hosting an SCS is hardly new – around 100 already exist in Europe, Australia and Canada – but Denver would be home to the first U.S. site. The City pioneered a previous proposal for the opioid addicted community in 1997 under Mayor Wellington Webb – a needle exchange program. However, given opposition from the Denver police union and an unwilling Colorado legislature, the initiative was not allowed under state law. Legislation changed in 2010 and the needle exchange was implemented in Denver two years later.

Now Denver hosts two needle exchange sites. Seven others are available across the state including programs in Grand Junction, Pueblo and Colorado Springs. For Harm Reduction Action Center ED, Raville, the conditions are much better now to establish an injection site. Raville said, “People are starting to understand that we can’t jail our way out of this issue. We’ve lost a lot of people and now is the time to approach the issue differently.”

Councilman Brooks is championing the cause at the city level and discounted claims that an injection site might bring in additional addicts, “Vibrant cities bring people in but it’s hard to know why they came. Data shows it [injection sites] doesn’t bring in new people.” Brooks continued, “People are dying today and we need to do something. What’s wrong with a pilot?”

At the state level, Representative Herod promises to bring legislation allowing local jurisdictions to install SCS saying, “I will propose this on the first day of session.” Even the Denver Police Department represented by Deputy Chief, David Quiñones, struck an accommodating tone, “We haven’t taken a position on this. Our job is to work with the system that the policy makers and elected officials put in place.”

Britt and Raville encourage Coloradans to stop shaming opioid users so progress can be made to save lives. On the night of the community meeting, Britt’s Phoenix shirt proclaimed, ‘Stronger than Stigma’. Raville summed up, “We have got to get beyond the idea of stigma and shame and stop preventable diseases like HIV, Hepatitis C, and overdose. With this site, we are doing something different.”

Extent of the Crisis

Doctor prescribed painkillers that fall under the opioid banner include hydrocodone, morphine, methadone and oxycodone. Brand names include OxyContin, Vicodin, Demerol and Percocet. In recent years addicts have found illegal opioids like heroin more available and cheaper than the pharmaceuticals requiring a doctor’s prescription.

According to the Center for Disease Control, 91 U.S. residents die every day from opioid overdoses. 60 percent of all drug overdoses are from opioids and between 1999 and 2015, the rate of overdose deaths quadrupled, similar to the increased rate of opioid prescriptions.

Invoking the story of his older brother Fred who died at the age of 43, President Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency. In his October White House press conference, Trump called opioid abuse, “The worst drug crisis in American History.” He added, “It is time to liberate our communities from the scourge of drug addiction. We can be the generation that ends the opioid epidemic.”

Trump named New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie to head the White House Opiate Task Force last spring. Christie has openly talked about losing a law school roommate to opioid addiction and has asked constituents to destigmatize asking for help or talking about addiction.

Trump’s executive action loosens some regulations to help states and local jurisdictions use federal funding to address the crisis. Many critics point out that the declaration has rung hollow since no funding has been attached to the announcement. Still, Trump’s stance on this drug problem is an evolution from the Bush Sr. and Clinton tactics to contain the crack cocaine epidemic. Their war on drugs filled jails with mostly young men of color, doing little to slow rates of addiction.

The Cannabis Alternative

A voice that turned heads at the Denver opioid meeting was that of Travis Nelson, CEO of the Medical Cannabis Project designed to replace opioid addiction and overdose with cannabis use. According to Nelson, “Research says that overdoses decrease by 25 percent in areas that have access to medical cannabis.” Nelson adds, “We believe we can turn people away from opioids resulting in harm reduction. Smoking cannabis is better than another addiction medicine.”

Nelson’s claims are supported by research being done at UCLA’s Cannabis Research Initiative, as well as a 2014 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association which covered all 50 states showing a decrease in overdoses in states with medical cannabis. Nelson’s project is currently seeking funding to get off the ground.

Latino Addiction Rates

According to Dr. Andrew Kolodny, Co-Director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University, Latino addiction rates are lower than those of whites because doctors are less likely to prescribe pain medication to people of color. Latinos are therefore, less likely to become addicted. In an interview with the Washington Post, Kolodny said, “…racial stereotyping is having a protective effect on non-white populations.”





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