Needle exchange programs in Colorado are expanding.
The programs are designed to keep illegal drug users from sharing used needles and spreading deadly diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C. And, not too long ago they were illegal in this state.
Five years ago, only one needle exchange operated in Colorado and it was illegal.
"Boulder County Health Department has been operating the first syringe exchange program in the state of Colorado for over 25 years," said Jeff Bassinger, the director of the Western Colorado Aids Project, known as WESTCAP based in Grand Junction.
Intravenous, or IV, drug users can come here to exchange dirty syringes for clean ones.
In Colorado, needle exchanges also offer rapid HIV and Hepatitis C testing and referrals for substance abuse, health issues and social services.
Now there are seven of these exchanges across the state.
"It was not legal the first 20 years of its operation," he said. "However, law enforcement and government in Boulder County understood the science behind it and supported it completely."
Bassinger said back in the early 90’s there wasn’t enough support from public health officials and lawmakers for programs like the one in Boulder.
Opponents worried it would encourage drug use.
It wasn’t until 2010 that the Colorado legislature passed a controversial law allowing syringe exchanges if county health boards approved them.
Democratic Senator Pat Steadman of Denver sponsored the bill. He said it made no sense to ban the facilities.
"This is not good public health policy because it discourages people from using clean syringes," Steadman said. "It encourages people to share and reuse dirty syringes and that’s how blood borne communicable diseases are spread."
State funding, grants and private donations support Colorado’s programs, but a congressional ban prevents them from receiving federal dollars.
WESTCAP runs the only exchange in this part of the state. It serves 22 counties.
Bassinger said IV drug use has been a problem for years in rural Colorado. Local data on the number of people using these drugs is hard to come by.
However, Bassinger says last year 75 percent of the exchange’s participants used meth and 25 percent used heroin, prescription or other drugs.
This year, they’re seeing a significant increase in heroin and prescription drugs.
"It’s very actually obvious the per capita rates of people who use injection drugs in rural areas is higher that it is in urban area areas," he said. "It’s very underground. It’s a very high need community."
In its first year, the Grand Junction exchange enrolled 70 people. Now in its second year, the number of participants has doubled.
Operators worry they don’t have money or supplies to keep up.
Shannon Robinson, a prevention coordinator for WESTCAP, said the facility is open only two days a week because it doesn’t have the funding to go full time.
"This is a way to for people to get say off the streets if they are homeless, help them get housing, help them get a primary care doctor, help with little things, and all of those baby steps lead up to helping people live productive what we want to call normal but you know I’d say what is an average life," Robinson said.
It used to be illegal in Colorado for a person to carry a clean or dirty syringe without a prescription. It was punishable with up to 10 days jail time per needle.
When the state approved exchanges, only those who enrolled were exempt from those penalties.
And, now a new state law will change that starting July 1. It decriminalizes carrying a new or used syringe, even if it has drug residue in it. However, users must first tell responders or law enforcement that they have it. The new law does not allow people to carry drugs or other paraphernalia.
It also directs needle exchanges to educate people about the new exemption.
Senator Steadman sponsored the bill.
"There’s a lot of stigma and fear that accompanies the injecting-drug using population and they generally are not happy to see law enforcement officers," he said. "They are not happy if they are asked to consent to a search. Instead, we can have a situation where they have an incentive to disclose and make sure everyone stays safer."
Steadman said the goal of the bill is to prevent accidental needle sticks which could spread diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C.
He’s pleased the bill passed, but said the state and country still have a lot of work to do when it comes to instituting more rational drug policies.
"Addiction is a medical condition and we ought to be using medicine and science to respond to it rather than the criminal law and jails and prisons," Steadman said.
WESTCAP officials said the organization doesn’t advertise its syringe exchange. All of its growth the past two years has come from participants telling others about its services.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story said at least 18 states have laws that permit needle exchanges. That is incorrect. At least 17 states and the District of Colombia have laws that permit needle exchanges.