Fightback Begins After Pueblo, CO, Banned Syringe Distribution

May 29, 2024

Some residents of Pueblo, Colorado, are fighting back after city lawmakers voted to ban sterile syringe provision. They’ve launched a campaign to gather enough signatures to suspend the Pueblo City Council ordinance that imposed the ban. Meanwhile the city’s mayor has created confusion over whether the ban is already in effect.

On May 13, the Council voted 5-2 to adopt the ban. It severely hampers the work of Access Point Pueblo and the Southern Colorado Harm Reduction Association—two local harm reduction programs that have been providing sterile syringes for years—as Filter previously reported.

The ordinance categorizes participation in syringe service programs (SSP) as a “nuisance.” This Class 2 municipal offense could, with multiple charges, lead to a one-year jail sentence. Proponents of the ban cited “syringe litter”—something that SSP like those in Pueblo do substantial work to reduce.

Residents who spoke at the Council meeting overwhelmingly opposed the ban. And some of them have now filed a referendum with the city, as local NBC affiliate KOAA News5 reported. If they can collect 1,403 valid signatures and present them to the Council by June 12, the Council will have to suspend and reconsider the ordinance. The question might then be put to voters on the November ballot.

Pueblo Mayor Heather Graham (R) muddied the waters at a May 23 press conference, referring to the ban and the signature drive when she said: “I believe, I’m not 100 percent sure on this, but I think it’s on hold for 30 days until they know if they have the amount of signatures that they need to have.”

“These needles are being used as a tool for people who are addicted to drugs,” Graham added. “And I think … that’s what the council was trying to do was to limit some of that availability and how people are injecting themselves with fentanyl and meth.”

Syringe service programs, which are proven to reduce transmissions of HIV and hepatitis C, among many other benefits, do not increase drug use—but do make it safer.

City officials later told KOAA News5 that the ordinance had, in fact, taken effect on May 16, when the mayor signed it. But the situation remains unclear to local service providers, leading them to suspend even provision of injectable naloxone, the opioid-overdose antidote, at present.

“Access Point Pueblo has removed all syringes from our operation, including for two of three forms of naloxone. No guidance has been provided.”

“We have not been kept apprised of implementation of the ordinance or any specifics of when it is in effect,” said Christine Charron, prevention services manager at Access Point Pueblo, in a statement shared with Filter.

“Without clear guidance from the City of Pueblo, we want to be sure we are operating in compliance with the law,” Charron continued. “As such, Access Point Pueblo has removed all syringes from our operation, including for two of three forms of naloxone we provide. No guidance on implementation of the ordinance as it relates to injectable naloxone or sharps disposal has been provided to us yet.”

The mayor’s office did not respond to Filter‘s request for comment.

“We continue to provide nasal naloxone, testing strips, safer sex supplies, wound care, and more, as well as our integrated care services such as HIV/HCV/STI testing and on-site counseling with no other anticipated changes to our programming,” Charron said. “We encourage the community to use the two disposal kiosks (at our location and at The Ethos) for free, safe disposal.”

Access Point is not involved in the voter petition process—”other than providing basic information on where our services stand,” Charron said—but welcomes it. “We are aware of the community organizing efforts for a referendum and are grateful for the amount of support our community is providing.”

The city’s only other (formerly) authorized SSP is similarly experiencing the impacts of the ban and a lack of clear guidance. Jude Solano, cofounder and executive director of the Southern Colorado Harm Reduction Association, explained to Filter that her organization is taking a cautious approach.

Solano hadn’t heard Mayor Graham’s comment about the ban being on hold, but said that “from our understanding, that’s not true.”

“It’s very frustrating,” she continued, “because the mayor’s office is signing off on this ban, but when they talk to the media they seem to have another story.”

“They have not even communicated anything to us in terms of when it is in effect, what it entails, nothing,” Solano said. “We’re trying to navigate this blind; we’re not participating in our syringe service program right now.”

“There’s a pattern of attacking and going after people who are poor and maybe using drugs.”

The lead organizer for the petition campaign did not respond to Filter‘s request for comment. But Solano supports its goals, though her organization is also not involved in the effort. She hopes it represents a path forward, though “I know these [campaigns] can be difficult and a bit of a gamble.”

Councilmember Dennis Flores (D), one of the two city lawmakers to vote against the ordinance, previously told Filter that besides a petition, a legal challenge could be another route to getting the ban overturned, when it would seem to contradict state laws around syringe provision. “We may need an interpretation of this statute by the attorney general of Colorado,” he said then.

“If nothing else, [the petition] definitely shows the citizens of Pueblo really do not appreciate the way this current government is operating,” Solano said.

She referred to other recent city actions when she said: “It’s more than just our syringe program—it’s the camping ban, kicking a few hundred people out of a hotel with no warning, now it’s us. There’s a pattern of attacking and going after people who are poor and maybe using drugs.”

 


Photograph (cropped) of Pueblo City Hall by David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 3.0

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander is Filter's staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it's actually alright. He's also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter's editorial fellow.

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