Fentanyl bill faces steep opposition from some who want harsher penalties for possession

Fentanyl bill hearing
Posted at 7:53 PM, Apr 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-13 11:41:21-04

DENVER — A bill that aims to address the rapid rise in fentanyl deaths in the state faced its first committee test Tuesday.

More than 100 people signed up to testify either for or against the bill, including families who brought pictures of loved ones they lost to fentanyl. Many gave emotional testimony about the devastating toll the synthetic opioid took on their families and the unexpected tragedy they've faced.

One woman testified about nearly losing her own life to fentanyl, saying she’s only alive today because someone that was with her recognized she was experiencing an overdose and gave her Narcan.

Even before the committee began, there was uncertainty about whether the bill has the support it needs to pass.

Among the critics of the bill are law enforcement officials who want to see more robust action taken on the possession of fentanyl. In its introduced form, the bill focused almost exclusively on punishing distributors and treatment/ prevention resources.

“The discussion has really gone towards possession," said Rep. Mike Lynch, R-Larimer, one of the bill's prime sponsors. "The original bill didn't really include anything about possession, but it gave district attorneys the tools they need to prosecute the drug dealers."

In its introduced version, House Bill 22-1326 would change felony distribution levels in the state to:

  • Level 1 drug felony if it weighs more than 50 grams
  • Level 2 drug felony if it weighs more than 4 grams, less than 50
  • Level 3 drug felony if it weighs less than 4 grams

The drug would not need to be pure fentanyl under the bill to qualify for the punishments. Possessing equipment to manufacture fentanyl or importing it into Colorado would also be considered a Level 1 drug felony.

“The prosecution of drug dealers who manufacture, distribute, dispense, or sell fentanyl, carfentanal, and analogs thereof, not the prosecution of low-level drug possessors, is a priority for Colorado,” the bill reads.

Law enforcement officials and numerous district attorneys insist, however, that even four grams of pure fentanyl could kill hundreds or thousands of people, so they want the felony possession limits to be lowered.

“On the issue of fentanyl, chiefs, sheriffs and Fraternal Order of Police members and stand firmly in our call for a zero-tolerance policy against the position of this poison,” said Chief Greg Knott, president of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, during a press conference Monday.

Law enforcement officials reiterated during that press conference that fentanyl is much more pervasive, addictive and deadly than other drugs, therefore it should have lower felony limits.

Supporters of the bill, however, say returning to drug policies that criminalize and incarcerate addicts is not an effective solution. Several doctors testified that criminalization could lead to worse health outcomes for addicts, and that mandatory treatment isn't the right answer either.

Families who testified were also split on how to handle the possession portion of the bill. Matt Riviere, who lost both of his sons to fentanyl poisoning, agreed with law enforcement that four grams is too much to not be considered a felony. However, he also doesn't want to see addicts and people experimenting with drugs, like his sons, face felony charges.

"We don’t want to see these casual users charged with a felony," Riviere testified. "Our heart is really for them to get help and to get off their addiction. It’s not to put them behind bars for some bad choices."

Another portion of the bill would make it a Level 1 drug felony if someone distributes fentanyl and a person died from consuming it. However, there is a carveout in the bill. If someone distributes a low level of fentanyl and someone overdoses, so long as the distributor tries to render aid, calls 911 and cooperates with law enforcement, the distributor would not face a felony for distribution resulting in death. They would still face other felony charges.

This is another portion of the bill that law enforcement, in particular, opposes, saying that it doesn’t matter if the person tried to help, the fact is that someone died as a result of their actions, and the distributor should face the consequences of that.

House Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver, is a prime sponsor of the bill. He defended the Good Samaritan portion of the bill during his introductory remarks to the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday.

“We want to save lives. We want to make sure that the people who are on the scene do everything they can to save that person’s life," Garnett said. "The language in the bill creates an incentive to stay with that person, to call first responders, to cooperate with them."

Garnett acknowledged that this bill will not address all of the issues with fentanyl in the state, but called it a monumental step forward. Lynch, meanwhile, implored his fellow lawmakers to not run to their political corners, but instead work toward a solution.

Large portions of the bill also call for mandatory treatment for people who are arrested with fentanyl, including admission into residential treatment facilities and education classes.

“The bill has a lot of really good harm reduction aspects to it," Lynch said. "This bill is not optional. If this bill doesn't pass, we're going to be responsible here."

He anticipates that that the bill will go through a series of changes before a final version is passed by the legislature.