Source: The Denver Post Pubdate:July 24, 1997 Page 3B Contact: Needleexchange merits, drawbacks debated Councilman says dangers override need By Ann Schrader Denver Post Medical/Science Writer On a recent ride along the South Platte River bike path, Denver City Councilman Ed Thomas and a friend debated the merits and drawbacks of needleexchange programs. Thomas said his friend is very much in favor of the programs, in which drug users can exchange one used syringe for a clean one to help reduce the transmission of HIV and other bloodborne diseases. But Thomas doubts such programs are a good idea. "I think it sends a mixed message," Thomas said Wednesday. "It says, 'It's illegal to do drugs, but as long as you're going to do them, here's the apparatus to do them.'" A big issue for Thomas and one that he has asked the city attorney's office to research is the city's liability if city and state laws are changed to allow operation of a needleexchange program. Thomas has asked the city attorneys to focus on what the city's liability is under the 1983 Civil Rights Act if someone dies of an overdose because of a syringe handed out in a citysponsored program. "The city of Denver is selfinsured. Until I get a definitive answer from someon, I'm not willing to change any kind of policies and, most especially, to change our city charter to allow these activities," Thomas said. Until he has a concrete answer, he said, "I am going to proceed as cautiously as I possibly can." On July , in his State of the City address, Mayor Wellington Webb pledged that within the next year he would propose an ordinance allowing a needleexchange program in Denver. Webb's spokesman, Briggs Gamblin, said Wednesday that Webb has asked the city attorney's office to explore legal issues for an ordinance. "At this point, he is still inclined to pass an ordinance at the city level that would be held in abeyance until state law is changed,... and he needs to know if that can be done," Gamblin said. Current Colorado law calls for arrest and a $100 fine for an addict or healthcare worker found to be possessing syringes for distribution or use. There also are city ordinances prohibiting injection drug use. Assistant City Attorney Maria Kayser said the situation is so new, "we can't say what the approach will be." However, the legal research will focus on how a needle exchange can be put together and "whatever ordinance would need to be enacted." In the last session, the Colorado House narrowly defeated a bill that would have permitted local communities to decide whether to set up needle exchanges. The mayor, Gamblin said, "feels if he's going to go up and lobby at the Statehouse that he needs to have shown that he's successfully lobbied for an ordinance at the local level." During his 23 years on the Denver police force, Thomas ran into the fallout from drugs. "People involved in heroin use, etc., are choosing that as an unfortunate lifestyle choice. They are supplementing their income with robberies, burglaries, whatever," Thomas said. But, he added, "I'm in a different realm now. My thing is we have to look at the overall consequences (of a needle exchange) to the city."