Mar 31, 2022 - News

Surging fentanyl use near Denver Union Station spurs calls for change

Photo: Robert Alexander/Getty Images

As fentanyl use and overdose rates hit new highs, pressure for policy changes is growing across the city.

Driving the news: Denver officials on Wednesday outlined new safety measures to crack down on a surge of drug-related crime in the Union Station area, including deploying more police to bus and rail concourses starting next Monday and eventually restricting transit areas to passengers only.

Other changes include: installing TV monitors showing security camera feeds in transit station main entrances, broadcasting prerecorded audio announcements and removing electrical outlets in walkways.

Why it matters: Union Station was the crown jewel of downtown Denver's revival — and now sits tarnished by surging crime numbers and homelessness that officials are pushing from Civic Center Park.

By the numbers: More than a thousand arrests linked to offenses ranging from violent crimes to trespassing were recorded between Nov. 1, 2021 and March 22, Mayor Michael Hancock told reporters Wednesday.

  • Roughly 700 arrests have been made at the Union Station bus terminal in the first two-and-a-half months of this year — a third of which were drug-related.

What they're saying: "What we're seeing today … is unprecedented in terms of the type of synthetic drug [use] that's happening here," Hancock warned. "The key is to react now."

State of play: City leaders, including Hancock, are calling on Colorado lawmakers to pass a bipartisan bill that would up the penalties for people caught distributing fentanyl and mandate addiction treatment for users of the drug.

  • State lawmakers and Attorney General Phil Weiser are already advocating for such legislation as Colorado’s death rate associated with the substance is climbing faster than almost any other state.
  • Denver police chief Paul Pazen says the bipartisan measure should go even further by making it a felony for anyone carrying less than 4 grams.
  • "We gotta make sure the Legislature and the governor hear us and understand what's happened here on the ground," Hancock pleaded.

The other side: Harm reductionists criticize the bill and Denver's strategy to curb addiction with law enforcement. The best way to keep public places from becoming de facto injection sites, they say, is to open an overdose prevention site legally.

  • "It just isn't realistic to think we're going to arrest our way out of drug use when we've never been able to do it before, ever," Lisa Raville, executive director of the Harm Reduction Action Center, recently told City Cast Denver.

The big picture: Fentanyl is saturating cities across the country, including Houston, Chicago and Seattle, as policymakers nationwide scramble to act.

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