Pueblo, CO, Bans Syringe Programs. What Next for Harm Reduction There?

    Lawmakers in Pueblo, Colorado, have decided to end sterile syringe provision in the city. Two local providers will now have to decide how best to continue serving people who use drugs under the ban. There are also potential avenues to getting the ban overturned.

    On May 13, Pueblo City Council voted by 5-2 to pass an ordinance that bans syringe provision. Councilmembers Dennis Flores and Sarah Martinez were the only two to vote against. That’s despite the fact that most residents who spoke at the council meeting—38 out of 44, according to the Pueblo Chieftain—opposed the ban.

    The approved ordinance makes it a “nuisance” to create, administer or participate in a syringe program—a Class 2 municipal offense that could result in a one-year jail sentence with two or more charges within five years.

    Syringe litter” has become a familiar pretext for local opponents of syringe service programs (SSP) in many places.

    “The only thing that changed in our community was the people elected to City Council.”

    “The City is experiencing an increase in the number of dirty hypodermic needles, syringes, and other drug paraphernalia being discarded in the City’s public places … presenting a threat to the health, property, safety, and welfare of the public in the City of Pueblo,” read a statement submitted to the record by Councilor Roger Gomez, who supported the ban.

    Councilor Flores rejects this claim. “The only thing that changed in our community was the people elected to City Council,” he told Filter, “with this particular Council zeroing in on the issue of reducing the amount of needles that are out in the community. There’s no clear evidence that the harm reduction people increased the amount of dirty needles that are strewn around.”

    Highlighting the two programs’ years of work serving public health goals, Flores also referenced the fact that they devote considerable efforts to disposing of discarded syringes. “They’re being blamed now for dirty needles, which is ironic.”

    Councilor Martinez meanwhile reported to the Council that she received numerous emails in opposition to the ban, including from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Colorado Providers Association and even police officers.

    Pueblo has had SSP for over a decade. Two organizations—Access Point Pueblo and the Southern Colorado Harm Reduction Association—distribute sterile syringes, vital in preventing the spread of HIV and hepatitis C, as well as providing other health care and support for people who use drugs. Access Point Program Manager Sarah Money told the Chieftain that the program has not had a single participant test positive for HIV in the last four years.

    “We are going to be committed to provide whatever harm reduction and disease prevention and care and love for our participants that we can.”

    Despite the wealth of evidence supporting SSP, Pueblo’s providers were required to suspend syringe provision as of the morning of May 20. But the mission will go on, even if it has to adapt.

    “We are going to be committed to provide whatever harm reduction and disease prevention and care and love for our participants that we can,” Christine Charron, prevention services manager at Access Point Pueblo, told Filter. “We will continue to provide overdose prevention, and we will work with our funders to see how we can adjust … It will look like a lot more emphasis on our testing program and [creating] more educational opportunities through outreach.”

    Charron explained how Access Point has earned the trust of city agencies over the years. “For the city of Pueblo, we do and have for years provided direct support to their police department,” she said. “When dispatch gets a call from the community of finding discarded syringes in public spaces, dispatch sends the call to us and we respond … We’ve also had a similar relationship with Parks and Rec staff, as well as their code enforcement team. We do provide that service to the city at no cost.”

    Under the new ordinance, syringe litter will likely increase, Charron continued, because no one else directly works with people who inject drugs to encourage safe disposal. “What we tried to make clear to the Council is that we are a part of trying to educate the public and our participants for all public health and safety,” she said. “What we tried to highlight is we provide really the only direct education to people who use drugs on the Colorado needlestick prevention law; every participant who comes gets an ID card with the needlestick and paraphernalia exemption law [written].”

    The state of Colorado, which first approved syringe distribution in 2010, has several laws on the books related to syringe provision and harm reduction. In 2020, lawmakers passed an amendment that allows any nonprofit organization with prior syringe provision experience to open an SSP without prior approval from their county health board.

    Each provider is required to “consult with interested stakeholders”, like residents and local businesses, and to report annually to the state how many people have received syringes, and how many used syringes the program collects. An exemption in the state’s drug “paraphernalia” law means that no harm reduction worker or SSP participant can be arrested for program-related syringe possession. Another state law, a so-called “needlestick prevention” statute, protects people from arrest if they inform a police officer they have a syringe on their person prior to being searched, even if it contains trace amounts of drugs.

    “I have many questions as to whether this ordinance can pass muster.”

    Pharmacists can also sell syringes without a prescription. The state public health department website lists 20 different SSP statewide, including in Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs.

    Pueblo’s debate is not yet over. Councilor Flores noted that members of the public, who spoke overwhelmingly in favor of SSP, might now pursue other means to bring them back. This could entail putting a question on the ballot for voters to decide directly. And potential legal challenges might result in a judge ruling against the city’s ban.

    “The question in my mind is, if the authority was given to the Colorado department of health and it’s a [state] statute, I’m not sure that locally we could circumvent a statute like that,” he said. “I have many questions as to whether this ordinance can pass muster … we may need an interpretation of this statute by the attorney general of Colorado.”


    Photograph by Joe Mabel via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 3.0

    • 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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