Today in the Colorado House, intense negotiations are underway over legislation that would tighten penalties for the distribution of the dangerous synthetic opioid drug fentanyl, which has been responsible for a sharp increase in overdose deaths due to the drug’s potency and frequent substitution for other street drugs. CBS4 Denver’s Shaun Boyd reports:
Speaker of the House Alec Garnett isn’t pulling punches. He says some lawmakers are putting election year politics ahead of saving lives…
Garnett…[has] spent hundreds of hours on a bill that makes distribution of even small amounts of fentanyl a felony and requires mandatory prison for those who sell fentanyl resulting in death, whether they knew it was fentanyl or not.
But some lawmakers say unless the bill includes felony charges for anyone caught with any amount of fentanyl, they’ll oppose it.
Under the bill, less than 4 grams is a misdemeanor.
“I am frustrated that people across the state just think that just zeroing out possession on fentanyl is somehow going to solve this problem,” says Garnett. [Pols emphasis]
In 2019, Colorado passed bipartisan legislation making simple possession–meaning possession for personal consumption with no intent to distribute–of most drugs a misdemeanor. This reform to sentencing laws in favor of treating addiction as a medical as opposed to a criminal problem has been wrongly blamed for an increase in fentanyl-related deaths in recent years that while significant is not unique to Colorado–which then allowed it to be turned into a political football by Republicans hoping to capitalize on public fears about rising crime for electoral advantage in the November midterms.
One of the biggest problems with fentanyl’s illicit distribution is that the drug is frequently misrepresented, substituted, or added to other street drugs without the end user’s knowledge. This leads directly to overdose deaths by users who either have no idea what they’re ingesting or mistake fentanyl for a drug they would consume in far greater quantities. This reality may mean that the arbitrary standard of 4 grams in the case of fentanyl is too high, but it doesn’t change the fundamental intention of the 2019 legislation: that drug addicts should be treated medically instead of forced into a lifetime of second-class citizenship that comes with a felony conviction.
And that means Colorado should not go back to making simple possession of drugs a felony. Punish dealers, not addicts. It’s a simple and politically defensible message that Democrats can win on if they stay strong against the current wave of emotion and political opportunism.
Let’s hope they do, because their heart–and good politics in the long run–was right the first time.