03/27/2011 08:49 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Harm Reduction Action Center Seeks To Curtail Disease In Injection Drug User Community

Last year, in a move applauded by many public health experts, the Colorado Legislature passed a law approving syringe exchange programs in the state. The measure paved the way for Denver's Harm Reduction and Action Center--a starting place for many of Denver's injection drug users to quit--to provide sterile materials for injection drug users.

Lisa Raville is the Director of the Harm Reduction and Action Center, where last year she says she saw over 1,100 clients seeking help and relief from their injection drug lifestyles. The clients are often homeless, and are at the highest risk for diseases like HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C.

To Raville, however, the dangers of injection drug addiction are not just confined to users.

"There was a case of a woman who was homeless and had a heroin habit, and who was burying her dirty syringes in a park downtown because she couldn't be caught with them," Raville recounted to the Huffington Post.

Possession of drug paraphernalia in Colorado is a class 2 petty offense, punishable by a maximum fine of $100.

"She also couldn't get clean ones so she was burying them for later Raville explains. When she came back, they were gone and she was convinced someone had stolen them, but really who knows where they went? They could have been dug up by a dog, or a curious child for all we know."

The Harm Reduction Action Center is also known on Denver's West Side as the "little red house," and operates as a daytime shelter three days a week for injection drug users, and even homeless diabetics who also have a need for clean syringes.


PHOTOS from inside the Harm Reduction Action Center:


Diseases like HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C can spread not only by needle-sharing, but also by sharing cooking supplies, so the Center keeps sterile metal caps and water on hand. Many clients are co-infected with HIV and Hepatitis C, so the Center also conducts free blood tests and hands out awareness pamphlets.

Each week a licensed therapist from Boulder, Jennifer Abbott, does pro-bono work at the Center to counsel clients suffering from addiction. Sometimes there's even acupuncture services, and Raville tells Huff Post that the Center also has an agreement with a local medical facility to help them incinerate used syringes.

A former client of the Harm Reduction Action Center, 28-year-old Fowler Knoll says a crucial part of the syringe exchange program, aside from providing the clean needles themselves, is to hand out information on disease and safe syringe disposal boxes.

Knoll tells HuffPost:

Lots of people are asking, 'well I don't do that and no one in my family does that, so why should I care about these people?' But this segment of the population is primarily the ones who have the ability to infect many many people around them, so it's a health issue. I used to hear horrendous safety 'facts' on the street, you know that you can't get HIV or Hep-C by doing this or that. And ultimately the used needles have to go somewhere right? But if there's a syringe exchange there's a benefit for the user to dispose of it in a safe way, because he knows he's getting another one.

According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, last year in Colorado alone over 4,000 people were diagnosed with HIV/AIDS or Hepatitis C.