Colorado Legislature’s plan to fight fentanyl includes tougher penalties for dealers, treatment

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A new bipartisan bill to be unveiled this week includes tougher criminal penalties for those who distribute fentanyl — but not those who simply possess it — and millions of dollars for life-saving Narcan and naloxone , test strips and drugs in prison. processing.

It’s the product of a months-long process, as Gov. Jared Polis and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle entered this year’s legislative session vowing to reverse the exponential rise in deaths by fentanyl overdose and to crack down on the dealers of this deadly opioid. .

The bill has drawn criticism from Republicans and experts who work with people with addictions. Republicans want tougher penalties for people caught in possession of fentanyl. Addiction and criminal law experts don’t believe tougher penalties for dealers will reduce the death toll because jailed dealers will be replaced by someone else willing to sell.

Fentanyl is a more potent and addictive synthetic opioid than many other opioids. Pharmaceutical fentanyl is prescribed by doctors as a painkiller, but an influx of illegally manufactured fentanyl has flooded the illegal drug market in the United States.

Illicit drug manufacturers mix fentanyl with other substances because it is cheaper to produce. This means that people thinking of buying other drugs, such as oxycodone or heroin, can unsuspectingly buy and use fentanyl, which can be deadly in small amounts. At least 767 people died from fentanyl overdoses in Colorado last year, although delays in reporting state data mean the true number is likely higher.

Polis, House Speaker Alec Garnett and others met with the Denver Post Wednesday morning to discuss the bill.

“We are answering the call we hear to help get these people off the streets who are profiting from this poison,” said Garnett, a Democrat from Denver who will join another Democrat and two Republicans in sponsoring the bill. law.

Among the harm reduction aspects of the bill, Garnett added, “We’re not going to stop recreational drug use, but it’s going to help make sure people have the resources they need.” …to make sure this isn’t the last fatality. medication they can take.

What’s in the bill?

According to a summary of the bill and interviews with those working on it, the bill due to be introduced on Thursday will include the following provisions:

  • Tougher penalties for fentanyl sellers
  • A criminal distribution causing death law that makes people who sell fentanyl that causes an overdose liable to punishment under the state’s most serious drug charge
  • Obligation for certain people arrested for possession of fentanyl to undergo compulsory treatment
  • A statewide overdose education campaign
  • $20 million for the state health department to buy naloxone and more money – no amount has yet been specified – to create a bulk purchase fund for fentanyl test strips
  • $3 million to expand drug treatment in county jails

Polis appeared particularly optimistic about test strips, saying that by having more drugs tested in more places, authorities will be better equipped to trace fentanyl-containing drugs back to their sources, “rather than having to follow a trail of corpses”.

The new crime of distributing fentanyl resulting in death would be punishable by eight to 32 years in prison and up to $1,000,000 in fines. Prosecutors would not have to prove that the dealers knew they were selling fentanyl under the law to bring an action. Dealers need to know what they’re selling, Garnett said.

“We can’t protect people who sell drugs in an environment where fentanyl is showing up more than ever,” Garnett said.

People will be shielded from distribution resulting in death charges under the state’s Good Samaritan law if they report an overdose, though they could still face other charges, a Garnett said.

More than a dozen people have been charged with distribution causing death in federal court in Colorado under the federal version of the law. The first case was filed in 2017, though the majority were filed in the past two years, according to court records.

The bill also significantly lowers the weight thresholds for more severe penalties for distributing fentanyl, according to a backgrounder on the bill. For example, possessing more than 225 grams with the intent to distribute is a Level 1 drug crime under current law, punishable by up to 32 years in prison. Under the bill, the threshold for a level one drug felony would be 50 grams of fentanyl. The law uses compound weights, meaning the total weight of the pill or powder, regardless of the amount of fentanyl in that weight.

“The numbers that were in place for other non-synthetic drugs just didn’t make sense for this,” said Mesa District Attorney Dan Rubinstein, a Republican.

The reviews already

The bill has not yet been released, but it is already the subject of partisan criticism. The Colorado Springs Gazette’s conservative editorial board called the bill a “copout” because it does not include a new penalty for possession of fentanyl. Conservative political operative Michael Fields said Wednesday morning that he and his allies would continue to run ads and direct mail pressuring Polis and the legislature to “really fix this problem.”

These conservatives and many others have called on the legislature to strike down a 2019 bipartisan state law that downgraded some drug possession charges from a felony to a misdemeanor. The upcoming bill does not propose to reverse this policy.

Drug use specialists and those who work closely with people who use drugs are also affected by this proposal.

“The incarceration of drug traffickers has little to no impact on disrupting the drug supply because the drug market is dynamic,” reads a new policy brief from the progressive Colorado Criminal Justice. Reform Coalition and the Denver-based Harm Reduction Action Center. “It responds to drug demand by replacing imprisoned dealers with new recruits or by increasing the sale of drugs by existing dealers, which is known as the ‘replacement effect’.

It doesn’t look like supporters of this bill will be willing to move much there. Polis and Garnett both described increasing penalties for distributors as central to their plan.

“This approach of tougher criminal penalties for those who inflict death,” the governor said, “is absolutely appropriate and necessary.”

This critical progressive policy brief also argued against increasing criminal penalties for people who distribute to someone who ends up dying from an overdose.

“There is no systematic empirical evidence that (such) prosecutions slow the sale of illegal drugs,” the brief states.

Lisa Raville, director of the Harm Reduction Action Center, said lawmakers were missing an opportunity to legalize sites where people could use drugs safely and under supervision.

“It can save someone’s life today,” Raville said.

Many lawmakers agree, but Democrats across the majority of the state have long viewed such sites as too politically toxic to touch.

Raville added, “I know it’s an election year, but they have no trouble doubling down on the worst ideas of the war on drugs, which are incarceration and criminalization.”

Harm reduction experts like her are glad the bill does not propose an additional penalty for possession of fentanyl – but there is disagreement over that approach even among the bill’s own sponsors.

“It doesn’t solve the underlying problem of … possession,” said Larimer County Republican State Rep. Mike Lynch, whose name will appear next to Garnett’s on the bill, in an interview on Wednesday morning. “We’ll see. We’re working on it.

Garnett defended that the bill does not increase penalties for those who possess fentanyl. This aspect will certainly be the subject of much debate as the bill progresses through the legislative process.

“We try to help people who are suffering from addiction without threatening more crime,” Garnett said. “It’s proven by data that it’s not an effective public policy tool.”

Denver Post writer Nick Coltrain contributed to this report.

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