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Pikes Peak Library district arms itself against overdoses 

click to enlarge Penrose Library sees many patrons with opioid problems. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Penrose Library sees many patrons with opioid problems.
When it comes to the drug epidemic, public restrooms can be ground zero.

Some heroin users inject three to five times a day, while those who inject cocaine may do so 12 to 15 times a day, according to Lisa Raville, executive director of the Harm Reduction Action Center in Denver. And since many in the throes of drug addiction are experiencing homelessness, they seek a safe, private space to inject. That means businesses and other locations with public restrooms, including local libraries, often deal with drug abuse on their premises.

A recent report from the El Paso County Coroner’s Office shows an increase in drug-related deaths. Last year, there were 147 drug-related accidental deaths, while there were 126 in 2016.

Given the fact that the Pikes Peak Library District keeps its restroom facilities open to the public, it’s not surprising that there’s been a handful of overdoses in its buildings over the past few years, though the district doesn’t have exact statistics. John Spears, PPLD’s chief librarian and CEO, says the district had seen two non-fatal overdoses so far this year.

Also this year, PPLD has had 13 incidents involving controlled substances or illegal drugs, according to library data. Seven of those were at the Penrose Library downtown.

Last year, there were 40 total incidents, 30 of which were at Penrose.

In December, thanks to a grant from behavioral health nonprofit AspenPointe, PPLD began training its security staff to use naloxone, the opioid-overdose reversal drug. Eventually, all library public-service staff will also be trained.

Naloxone is now being widely used by law enforcement and health care professionals, but most people don’t immediately think of librarians needing to administer the drug.

PPLD’s district-wide security manager, David Glenn, calls naloxone a new “tool in the toolbox.” While he dismisses the idea that drug abuse has become more prevalent in area libraries, naloxone has already proved effective — in early May, security staff at Penrose saved a patron’s life with the drug.

Meanwhile, Raville says Denver Public Library successfully used naloxone more than a dozen times in the past year and a half. She adds that other businesses, such as gas stations, also dealt with the problem, leading some to close their restrooms to the public.

But locking down facilities doesn’t solve the public safety issue, Raville says. “All that does is push people to alleys and parks,” she says. “It’s solving the issue for [business owners] maybe, unless somebody buys something — and drug users have money — or it’s going to push them into more public space.”

Public libraries don’t limit access to their facilities, Spears says. “The most important word in who we are is ‘public.’ We do distinguish on behavior, but we are a tax-supported institution that’s meant to be there for everybody... We provide everyone the same level of service no matter what their situation is.”

Naloxone, by the way, is just one strategy for limiting the harm of the opioid epidemic. In Denver, Raville runs the largest syringe-exchange program in the state, allowing addicts to receive free, unused syringes to reduce the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C. While there are currently syringe-exchange programs in most Front Range cities, Colorado Springs doesn’t have one, and won’t for the foreseeable future, thanks to votes last year by the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners and the county’s Board of Health.

Spears says he personally supports introducing a syringe exchange program in Colorado Springs, saying to rule it out is “inexcusable.”

“To me, it shouldn’t be a radical act to save someone’s life,” he says, “which naloxone does and which syringe access does.”

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