Colorado lawmakers unveil bipartisan bill to address fentanyl dealers, addiction

Measure, as drafted, would strengthen penalties for people who deal fentanyl-laced drugs
Posted at 2:54 PM, Mar 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-24 19:41:53-04

DENVER – Colorado lawmakers unveiled a bill Thursday that would reduce the amount of fentanyl-laced drugs a dealer would need to possess in order to face harsh felony charges and aims to widely increase access to fentanyl strips, Narcan and services for people who suffer from addiction.

The unveiling of the bill, which is expected to be formally introduced Thursday afternoon, has been months in the making, as officials from both parties have been talking about measures that would be introduced at this year’s legislative session since at least December amid a scourge of fentanyl deaths.

Kirk Bol, MSPH, the manager of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Vital Statistics Program, said earlier this month at least 803 drug overdose deaths in Colorado in 2021 involved fentanyl of some form.

But according to lawmakers who unveiled the bill Thursday, there has been more than a 1,000% increase in fentanyl-related deaths since 2015, when only five Coloradans died of the drug, an opioid that can be prescribed as a painkiller, but which has been illegally manufactured and distributed in large quantities over the past several years.

There are several facets to the bill, but one that lawmakers from both sides of the aisle talked about during Thursday’s news conference was the penalty changes for drug dealers who distribute fentanyl in any form.

The measure, according to a draft copy obtained by Denver7 and lawmakers who discussed it Thursday, makes it a level 4 drug felony to possess any drug or compound that contains fentanyl and weighs more than 4 grams. It also changes the weight a person needs to possess in order to be charged with various levels of drug felonies in Colorado:

  • A person would commit a level 1 drug felony if they distribute, manufacture or sell a drug or compound containing fentanyl or carfentanil that weighs more than 50 grams.
  • A person would commit a level 2 drug felony if they distribute, manufacture or sell a drug or compound containing fentanyl or carfentanil that weighs between 4 grams and 50 grams.
  • A person would commit a level 3 drug felony if they distribute, manufacture or sell a drug or compound containing fentanyl or carfentanil that weighs less than 4 grams.

The bill would also make a person face a level 1 drug felony if they sell a drug or compound containing fentanyl which kills a person whom they sold to and is the proximate cause of death.

A level 1 drug felony would also apply to anyone who imports into Colorado any drug or mixture containing fentanyl that weighs more than 4 grams, as well as anyone who possesses a pill or tablet press or manufacturing equipment with the intent to manufacture a controlled substance containing fentanyl.

Level 1 drug felonies are punishable with sentences of 8-32 years; level 2 drug felonies are punishable with sentences of 4-8 years; level 3 drug felonies are punishable with sentences of 2-4 years; and level 4 drug felonies are punishable sentences of 6-12 months.

Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, a former Weld County sheriff who is one of the sponsors of the bill, said bringing those cutoff points down was “critical if we are going to go after the people responsible for these deaths.” Several district attorneys from both parties also said they supported the changes.

"Through this legislation, we will be able to respond aggressively to dealers taking lives when distributing this deadly drug,” said Mesa County District Attorney Dan Rubinstein, a Republican.

House Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver, another of the prime sponsors of the measure, said the changes “provide tools to law enforcement and district attorneys to hold people accountable” who are responsible for dealing fentanyl-laced drugs.

But the bill is not limited to punishing drug dealers. 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.

The sponsors of the bill say those treatment and education programs are aimed at helping people with addictions rather than punishing them for possession, as some other Republicans have pushed for. About $29 million of the money is coming from American Rescue Plan dollars the state received.

“Individuals who are poisoned by fentanyl deserve justice and this bill is a positive step forward,” Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty, a Democrat, said in a statement. “And, for those struggling with addiction, this proposal would provide resources and treatment that is long overdue in the state of Colorado.”

Denver DA Beth McCann said her office filed 340 cases tied to fentanyl last year – double the 133 filed in 2020. In 2022, thus far, the Denver District Attorney's Office has filed 160 cases, a spokesperson said. She said in a statement the bill would empower local prosecutors with similar tools federal prosecutors can use to hold dealers accountable.

The bill has bipartisan support, according to the sponsors who spoke at Thursday’s news conference, including Garnett, Cooke, Rep. Mike Lynch, R-Wellington, Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, and Sen. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood.

“This is not a partisan issue. This is a leadership issue,” Lynch said at the news conference. “It’s where we come together as a state to find and fix problems, and I’m honored to be a part of it.”

“I’ve gotta say the speaker has done amazing work to try to get all sides of this conversation to the table to come up with a solution that is right for Colorado,” Herod said. “Is everyone happy? No. But this is a solution that will work.”

Several parents who lost children to accidental fentanyl poisoning over the past year also spoke at the news conference, including Matt Riviere, whose 21- and 19-year-old sons died of fentanyl poisoning after taking pills they thought were oxycodone.

“We owe it to them to share their story by speaking out, raising awareness and enacting legislation to turn the tide of this deadly evil destroying our youth,” he said. “We can’t be silent in our suffering. What we say and do now echoes an eternity.”

And though some of those district attorneys and lawmakers who spoke at the news conference and issued statements afterward said they supported the measure, there are still some law enforcement organizations and drug treatment organizations expressed skepticism about the measure in its current form.

A consortium of the County Sheriffs of Colorado, the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, and the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police said while they appreciate the effort and the facets of the bill that include extra penalties for distribution intent, they want even simple possession of fentanyl to be a felony.

“Our response as a state needs to match the serious and deadly consequences brought on by this drug. Not taking these bold steps will only lead to more tragedy for Coloradans,” the groups said in a release. “We are eager to bring our expertise and experience to work with the General Assembly to build upon the current provisions of the bill to get the policy right to make a significant difference in our shared fight against fentanyl.”

In a special brief, the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition and Harm Reduction Action Center, said there is no correlation between overdose deaths and penalties for possession – and pushed back on those who have said HB19-1263, which made possession of drugs up to 4 grams a misdemeanor until the fourth conviction, was responsible for the overdose increase, as overdoses started to spike in 2016 when possession was still a felony.

But the brief also said that increasing penalties for dealers who distribute fentanyl will not likely decrease the supply of the drug.

“Incarcerating drug dealers has little or no impact on disrupting drug supplies because the drug market is dynamic. It responds to the demand for drugs by replacing imprisoned sellers with either new recruits or increased drug selling by existing dealers, which is known as the ‘replacement effect,’” the brief says. “There may be other outcomes that justify revising drug distribution laws, including better integration of fentanyl into the drug sentencing grid or holding dealers accountable, but the past 50 years of drug war policies have clearly demonstrated they will not reduce drug supplies.”

Garnett said it was important to let dealers know that they would not be shielded from supplying the drugs that kills someone or makes them addicted.

“Working with Colorado’s district attorneys and public health experts, we’ve crafted a proposal that will crack down on the dealers peddling death in our communities and provide treatment options to individuals who need help,” he said. “By focusing on the root causes of overdoses and going after dealers, this solution will stem the tide of fentanyl deaths in Colorado and protect our communities from this dangerous drug.”

Gov. Jared Polis, who also has pushed for adapted laws to address fentanyl and addiction, said he supports the bill as “a better comprehensive solution that will save lives and improve public safety.”