Sad, Cynical Politics Behind Push To Re-Felonize Drug Possession

House Speaker Alec Garnett (D-Denver).

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.

10 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. spaceman2021 says:

    Absolutely ridiculous to have simple possession a felony.  The last drug war worked so well.  

  2. Genghis says:

    That's exactly what Colorado needs: more "We're Doing Something About It " Theater.

  3. davebarnes says:

    Let's raise the limit to 40 grams.

    Let Darwin rule.

    • Voyageur says:

      Oh, 4 grams is more than enough for Darwin to work with.  just three milligrams will kill an average man. And frankly, I don’t mourn the fools who check out with the stuff.  But users should get treatment, not prison time.

      • kwtree says:

        Many of the victims don’t know what they’re ingesting, since it’s routinely mixed with other drugs. You could argue that nobody should take a non-prescribed drug ever, and you’d be right. 

        But there are children who are given fentanyl-laced pills for pain or to “calm them down”. There are workers with injuries who think that they are taking a regular pain pill.  In 1991, the typical fentanyl overdose victim was a 32 year old white male with a history of heroin use. But that’s changed. Victims are younger, and more diverse in every way.  We lost two teens in Jeffco schools to fentanyl this year alone. I’m tired of it. 

        The problem is that fentanyl is cheap to make, easy to smuggle, and 50x more potent than heroin as a narcotic. There’s a reason that they give terminal cancer patients fentanyl patches; it works. It takes the pain away and gets people high.

        Today, a dead fentanyl user could be anybody who has a pill-popping relative or friend who wants to “help”. Does that count as “distribution”? I think it should. 

        I’d argue for criminal penalties depending on consequences of passing fentanyl to someone. If the recipient overdoses and dies, it should be a freaking felony. Same if there is a fatal accident because of impaired judgment.

        Simple possession? Misdemeanor is enough. But hammer them with required classes, monitoring, UAs, therapy, NA groups, whatever it takes to get them clean and cognizant that they just can’t ingest or pass out unknown pills to people.

        At the border, it’s beyond dispute that cheap , potent fentanyl is being manufactured and smuggled from Mexico and central America. That’s not anti-immigrant; it’s just reality.

        We know that USA legalization of cannabis hurt the cartelistas. I don’t know what the big picture cure for fentanyl smuggling is, but I suspect it’s a holistic makeover of these Central American economies, de-incentivizing corruption and oligarchy, paying living wages to employees of exploitative multinational corporations, making it possible for people to stay and raise their families in peace. In other words, the same “cure” as for illegal immigration.

  4. 2Jung2Die says:

    Just a quick PSA for context. The bill is more than 40 pages long. While penalties for possession are getting the most attention, probably with good reason, the bill goes after distributors much harder than simple users. It also has sections on harm reduction, like treatment for addicts, narcan, and test strips. I would fully agree that mere small quantity users shouldn't be felonized, but overall fentanyl's an awfully serious problem right now. If anyone trusted me to run stuff, I'd propose some type of bill even though I'm fairly libertarian about many types of drugs. Of course details matter.

  5. ohwilleke says:

    I remain pleased with the representation I am getting from my state representative Alec Garnett.

    Also, for what it is worth, the mass of the drugs shouldn’t be in the controlled substances act at all. Instead, criminal punishments should be based upon the nature of the activity (e.g. mere possession, delivering drugs as a “mule”, selling, supervising other people selling), rather than how much of a drug there is, and if we are going to use any metric of the amount of drugs, it should be their value in dollars since drug dealing is primarily an economic crime for the people who are in the drug dealing trade.

  6. ElliotFladen says:

    Well said 

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