DENVER — A drug policy expert says a proposal being considered by Colorado lawmakers, which would punish drug suppliers with a potential prison sentence for deadly overdoses, could have unintended consequences and lead to family members and friends being charged.
Senate Bill 109 would allow prosecutors to charge people who supply drugs to someone who later dies from an overdose with a level one drug felony.
If convicted, they could be sentenced to prison for over 30 years.
It’s similar to a controversial measure lawmakers passed last year to address deadly fentanyl overdoses.
The new proposal would apply to Schedule I and II drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine, which together claimed more than 1,000 lives in Colorado in 2021, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
In all, more than 1,800 people died from a drug overdose in Colorado in 2021, a state record.
The numbers for 2022 are still being finalized but a provisional count from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed the state was on track to potentially tie that or come close.
Those alarming stats are why Colorado State Senator Kyle Mullica, a Democrat who represents Adams County, wants to punish drug dealers and suppliers.
“People are tired of seeing people die,” said Mullica. “They want to see us take some action and try to make that stop.”
Mullica introduced SB 109 alongside State Senator Byron Pelton, a Republican, earlier this year.
The bill passed through the Senate judiciary committee and was scheduled to be taken up on the Senate floor last week, but was held over.
It could be brought up on the floor this week.
Regardless of when the full body considers it, it’s likely to spark a lot of debate.
“Our goal is to really try to make sure that if someone deals these drugs and kills someone in our community, that there is a significant consequence there so that, that family has justice,” said Mullica. “It’s just like we do if somebody decides to drink and drive and kill someone doing that.”
But not everyone thinks that’s a good idea.
“This is likely to lead to more rather than fewer overdose deaths,” said Sam Kamin, a law professor at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law and the Chauncey G. Wilson Memorial Research Chair.
Kamin has become a leading national expert on marijuana laws and regulations and has written extensively about the War on Drugs.
He says laws like SB 109 have had unintended consequences in other states.
“Evidence from other states shows that the people principally who are charged under these kinds of laws are the friends, families, people who are sharing drugs with friends who mean those friends no harm, who are taking those same risks themselves,” said Kamin. “The experience in other states shows those are the people against whom this law is likely to be used. It does not strike me as justice to punish those people, particularly with such draconian penalties.”
Kamin says another concern is that people who witness an overdose will be less likely to call 911 for fear of being charged.
“If people are concerned that someone they are sharing drugs with has overdosed and they may be liable for homicide, they're likely to leave that scene to not contact the authorities,” said Kamin. “And that is more likely to isolate that person and lead to their death than we would have under existing law.”
Mullica told Denver7 language will likely be added to ensure innocent witnesses are not charged.
“We’re working to make sure that there are no unintended consequences from this,” said Mullica. “But we do know hearing from our community that they want to see something done. They’re tired of seeing people die in our community.”