Colorado AG Coffman says evidence supports syringe exchange programs

Author: Jakob Rodgers, The Gazette - December 9, 2017 - Updated: December 9, 2017

Attorney General Cynthia CoffmanAttorney General Cynthia Coffman. (Colorado Springs Gazette file photo)

Attorney General Cynthia Coffman doesn’t need any more proof that syringe exchange programs and supervised drug injection sites can work, and can help Colorado.

“The data is dead bodies washing up in Cherry Creek,” Coffman said. “I think it’s people found with needles in their arms on Colfax. I think it is dead children being buried by their parents.”

Her endorsement of such programs came Friday during the final day of the Colorado Health Institute’s annual conference in Englewood, which included a wide-ranging panel discussion with most candidates vying to succeed term-limited Gov. John Hickenlooper in fall 2018.

Coffman, a Republican who joined the crowded field last month, touted harm reduction programs as a key means to combat the current opioid epidemic, and the infectious diseases that have followed, such as hepatitis C.

“We have a public health crisis,” Coffman said. “And I think we have to look at every possible way that communities are comfortable with.”

She stood out against other GOP candidates in attendance Friday in her emphatic support for such programs.

Republican candidate Victor Mitchell voiced reluctance at the concept, though he left the door open to supporting cities that have themselves agreed to allow harm reduction programs, including needle exchanges.

“I would be open-minded to taking a look at that,” said Mitchell, an entrepreneur and former state representative from 2007 to 2009 from Douglas and Teller counties.

Syringe exchange programs offer drug users free syringes and dispose of dirty needles while usually offering a host of substance abuse treatment services or referrals.

Supervised injection sites, by contrast, offer drug users a place to inject illicit drugs under the supervision of a health care professional, who can watch for signs of an overdose. One such site is being considered in Denver, and lawmakers are expected to take up the issue of whether to legalize such sites when they return to Capitol Hill in January.

Republican candidate Doug Robinson, a former investment banker, voiced resistance to supervised injection sites opening across the state, saying “I’m not there yet.”

He said syringe exchanges “need more exploration,” and he called it a “community-by-community decision” in a follow-up interview with The Gazette.

Fellow GOP candidates Walker Stapleton and Tom Tancredo did not attend Friday’s event.

The issue came to a head in El Paso County on Monday, when the Board of Health killed a proposal for the foreseeable future to establish a syringe exchange on Colorado Springs’ west side amid fears it enables drug use.

Such programs – of which there are already 13 locations in Colorado – are touted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a proven means to cut down on blood-borne diseases, reducing overdose deaths and needle stick injuries among firefighters, police officers and sheriff’s deputies.

The subject of syringe exchange programs wasn’t raised during the following panel of Democratic gubernatorial candidates, which included every announced candidate other than U.S. Rep. Jared Polis. However, each candidate in attendance was receptive to syringe exchanges when approached after the forum by The Gazette.

Their responses somewhat diverged, however, when the conversation turned to ways they wish to lower healt insurance costs across the state, where individual market customers have endured two consecutive years of steep double-digit rate increases.

Cary Kennedy, a former state treasurer, advocated offering residents the opportunity to buy into Medicaid or health plans offered to state employees.

Mike Johnston, a former state senator, pushed expanding insurance choices in counties where only one insurer sells plans on Connect for Health Colorado. And he demanded increased price transparency and greater incentives for improved health outcomes.

Noel Ginsburg, an entrepreneur, said the state should first “to reach out to California and other states and create an insurance market that is larger, that would enable us to compete and negotiate prices much more aggressively.”

Colorado’s Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, who has led several initiatives across the state to drive down health care prices, suggested that consumers have a hand in bringing down health care costs.

“I think having patient engagement and patient education is going to be really, really important,” Lynne said.

Jakob Rodgers, The Gazette

Jakob Rodgers, The Gazette