DENVER — After several long days of debate in the Colorado House, a bill to more harshly punish the distribution of fentanyl in the state has moved on to the Senate.
House bill 22-1326 faced another public hearing Tuesday, in front of the senate judiciary, where once again families, district attorneys and law enforcement shared their thoughts on the bill.
Before the committee hearing, however, several dozen people gathered for a rally in front of the capitol to call for rehabilitation rather than further criminal penalties for possession.
About 75 people held signs that read "recovery not felony" and "no more drug war" and shared their stories of criminalization and rehabilitation.
Under the current version of the bill, possession of one gram of fentanyl, either pure or mixed in with other narcotics, would be considered a felony, down from the original proposal of four grams.
Tripp Freeman knows what it’s like to make a bad decision and how hard it is to recover from that choice; he was sentenced to 12 years in the Colorado Department of Corrections in his early 20s after becoming addicted to crack cocaine and methamphetamine.
Once he left prison, he had nowhere to go so he decided to sign up for a sober living facility.
“I've done a lot of treatment before in my life, but I'd never done sober living. Hazelbrook provided me an amazing family network of support,” Freeman said.
Not only was he able to get sober, but Freeman says he got to a place where he could help others take the same path; he’s now the director of operations for the facility.
That chance at change is what brought Freeman and dozens of others to the State Capitol Tuesday to rally against the further criminalization of fentanyl.
Freeman says he’s seen a lot of people come through the rehabilitation center that has no idea fentanyl is in their system since it is increasingly being mixed with other drugs.
He agrees with the current proposal of making one gram or more of fentanyl a felony but says anything less than that will punish people with true addiction and mental health problems rather than get them the help they need.
“Just having that on your record, it prevents you from doing almost any professional career out there, it prevents you from getting any reliable, stable housing. The housing that you can get is in a poor area, which leaves you vulnerable to more addiction and more relapse. So, it really does set a lot of barriers,” he said.
He’s also cautious about the use of the phrasing "knowingly possess" that the bill stipulates for felony charges. Freeman believes that gives a lot of power to prosecutors to determine whether the person possessing the drug knew there was fentanyl in it.
Law enforcement has also raised numerous concerns with the bill, though for very different reasons.
In committee after committee, sheriffs, police chiefs and district attorneys have argued that fentanyl is too potent, pervasive, and deadly to be treated like other drugs, so they want any possession to be considered a felony.
In Tuesday’s hearing, district attorneys also argued that proving that someone knew fentanyl was in the drug would be exceedingly difficult for prosecutors and is not applied to other parts of state law when it comes to drug possession.
Several also raised concerns about a provision that would end the felony possession portion of the bill after a few years, saying that’s not enough time to make sure the change to the law is having an impact.
The bill does dedicate funding to treatment and rehabilitation programs. The measure would mandate residential treatment as a condition of probation for certain offenses, as well as a fentanyl education class that would be developed by the state office of behavioral health.
It would also expand the places where people can obtain Narcan and testing strips to include schools, require jails to provide them to people with substance abuse disorders upon their release, require community corrections programs to assess people for withdrawal and treat them, and allows the correctional treatment board to send money to corrections facilities to help with overdose prevention.
Further, it would appropriate $20 million from behavioral and mental health funds to an opiate antagonist bulk purchase fund and facilitate lower-cost bulk purchases of Narcan and testing strips.
And it would require the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to create a statewide fentanyl prevention and education campaign.
Freeman says he knows he deserved to be in prison for his crimes, but he’s also grateful for his chance to recover and he hopes others will have the same opportunity.
“It really can change your life. I'm living proof of that,” he said.