DENVER (CBS4)– A needle exchange business, which provides clean needles to those who use illegal drugs, will be allowed to open near a Denver Public Schools building, even though it technically violates city code. Thanks to a variance, or exception, granted by Denver’s Department of Public Health and Environment, the Harm Reduction Action Center will be allowed to open at 8th and Lincoln in Denver.
The location, the former Le Central French restaurant which became Clyde that has since closed, is within 1,000 feet of Contemporary Learning Academy and 5280 High School.
City code, known as the “allowance for syringe access program,” was created eight years ago. The ordinance stated such a business could not open within 1,000 feet of an elementary or secondary school. However, variances can be granted by the board itself.
Unlike the marijuana and liquor industries, the needle exchange industry in Denver is not required to seek public comment prior to a variance being sought or approved.
Danica Lee, Director of Public Health Investigation Division for Denver’s Department of Public Health and Environment, told CBS4’s Dillon Thomas a requirement to engage the public was not in the original ordinance.
“(Denver City Council) did not establish rules in the ordinance for advance notification, which is uniform with other medical businesses,” Lee said.
Daren Nakos, a resident who lives near the new location, said the city’s lack of transparency to the public in advance was concerning.
“The fact that this wasn’t given public notice for comment, and for us to weigh in and give our thoughts, is just flat out wrong,” Nakos said.
Nakos said local businesses were required to conduct public forums, and seek approval, to simply obtain a liquor license near a school. He told CBS4 he felt the needle exchange center was able to circumvent an important discussion which may have encouraged the city to seek a different location for the business.
“The rule was created for a reason. (The center’s new location) has not only one school within 1,000 feet, it has two,” Nakos said. “When I found out where the location was, and its proximity to the schools in the area, I got really concerned.”
The variance granted by the health board in Denver lasts five years, meaning the center will not have to resubmit for approval until 2025. However, Lee noted the board does have the right to revoke the variance at any time if legitimate concerns from the community are brought to the city’s attention. Lee added the center will be inspected twice a year.
“Denver is the only jurisdiction in the state that has a set of regulations for syringe access programs,” Lee said. “Some might be surprised by the positive impact (the center) may have one the community.”
Lee said the Harm Reduction Action Center has never received a complaint from neighbors along their Colfax location, and was even awarded for their work in the community.
Denver Public Schools spokesperson Winna MacLaren sent CBS4 a statement that reads, “The Harm Reduction Action Center will provide an important service to the community. We are optimistic that they will be good neighbors. As a school district, we will work with the community if any issues arise involving the safety and well being of our students.”
Multiple business owners, and residents, told CBS4 the city dropped the ball by not allowing the public to weigh in on the introduction of the needle exchange in their neighborhood.
“There is a need for this service, in this day and age.” Nakos said. “We understand the problem; we are just in disagreement to the location. I will second guess walking through this neighborhood, because it is just an unknown.”