Colorado law enforcement leaders are speaking out against the new fentanyl bill, which lawmakers say is a step toward solving the state’s opioid crisis.
The legislation introduced by Democratic Speaker of the House Alec Garnett attempts to increase the penalties for those caught selling or using fentanyl. It would also force those caught with the drug into treatment or education programs.
However, law enforcement leaders believe the bill is too lenient.
“This is something like we’ve never seen,” Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen said. “People are dying unwittingly and unknowingly … You can’t ignore that people are dying. In our city, more than one a day are dying. How do folks square that?”
House Bill 1326 makes selling the drug a class 2 felony punishable by up to two to four years in jail. The bill also makes distribution resulting in death a class one felony.
However, law enforcement leaders disagreed with its policy of decriminalizing minor possession of fentanyl.
Pazen said that while carrying just a small amount of certain drugs like bath salts, GHB, ketamine and Rohypnol remains a felony, the charges for carrying similar amounts of the synthetic opioid fentanyl are far less serious.
Under the current bill, carrying four grams or less of the drug would amount to a misdemeanor charge unless the prosecutor can prove they intended to distribute it. Carrying anything more than four grams would yield a felony charge.
Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers believes that carrying any amount of fentanyl should be a felony under the law.
“The number of people dying from fentanyl overdoses has grown over the last several years. The fact of the matter is that a very small amount of fentanyl is incredibly deadly. Less than four grams can cause the death of dozens of people, and they made it a misdemeanor,” Suthers said.
Suthers added that the bill allows those who sell fentanyl to someone who dies as a result to be eligible for probation. They can even avoid prosecution by reporting the incident and cooperating with police — known as a “good Samaritan” clause.
The mayor then called for the state legislature to “start listening more to law enforcement … and less to organizations whose objective is to minimize the consequences of criminal behavior.”
Law enforcement leaders like Pazen agreed with Suthers that the bill is too soft. They are now pushing to make simple possession of fentanyl a felony.
“This drug is so deadly that possession of any amount should have a felony consequence. Since no amount of fentanyl is safe, this coalition will seek amendments to elevate ‘simple possession’ to a felony,” a law enforcement lobbying group in a statement. “Colorado cannot afford to take small, incremental steps to address the fentanyl crisis.”
The Colorado Drug Investigators Association said the current bill allows a person to carry enough fentanyl to kill up to 2,000 people.
Criminal justice advocates and addiction experts supported the bill. They believe that increasing the penalties for possession is an ineffective way to solve the drug crisis.
“The most effective ways to address the overdose crisis are evidence-based public health and harm reduction strategies that keep people alive and maximize their potential for recovery,” the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition and the Harm Reduction Center said in a joint statement. “Such efforts warrant substantial investment, particularly in underserved communities of color who are experiencing higher rates of overdose deaths.”
Pueblo Police Chief Chris Noeller disagreed and said jail time often is the first step toward recovery.
“I don’t know that just saying, ‘meh, it’s a misdemeanor, you won’t have to go to jail,’ is helpful to them,” Noeller said. “I had an interesting conversation with an addict one time who is recovered, and they said the only thing that got them on the path to recovery was going to jail.”
In El Paso County last year, there were 102 deaths linked to the drug. Across the state, more than 800 deaths were due to fentanyl overdose — double the amount in 2020.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and District Attorney Michael Allen have also called for harsher penalties in the bill.