Colorado House passes bill to address fentanyl overdose crisis

5 Democrats vote ‘no,’ citing opposition to felony possession

By: - April 26, 2022 5:05 am
Alec Garnett

Speaker Alec Garnett leads off the start of the second regular session of the 73rd General Assembly, Jan. 12, 2022. (Carl Payne for Colorado Newsline)

Following an emotional debate, the Colorado House passed a bill aimed at addressing the fentanyl overdose crisis. The legislation passed Monday on a mostly party-line vote of 43-22.

House Bill 22-1326 now heads to the Senate, where members of the public will have a second opportunity to testify on the comprehensive legislation. The sponsors include House Speaker Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, and Rep. Mike Lynch, a Wellington Republican, along with Sens. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, and John Cooke, a Republican from Greeley.

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“Today, the House took a monumental step forward to combat the fentanyl crisis, crack down on the dealers peddling death in our communities, and accelerate our state’s public health response to get this deadly drug off our streets and save lives,” Garnett said in a statement following the bill’s passage.

More Coloradans could be charged with felony possession under latest fentanyl bill

Last year, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment recorded 1,842 total drug overdose deaths in the state, according to updated data that Vital Statistics Program Manager Kirk Bol provided Newsline on April 22. That is the highest total in recent history, and it represents a 24% increase from 2020, when 1,477 people died of drug overdose. An estimated 903 of the overdose deaths in 2021 specifically involved fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 50 times more potent than heroin. The fatal overdose totals could change before data is finalized in May.

HB-1326 seeks to address the crisis by increasing penalties for people convicted of distributing or manufacturing substances containing fentanyl.

Manufacturing, distributing or selling a substance containing any amount of fentanyl, carfentanil or their analogs would become a level 1 drug felony if the substance being manufactured or sold weighed a total of more than 50 grams, down from 225 grams under current law. Carfentanil is a substance 100 times more potent than fentanyl, used to tranquilize elephants and other large animals.

The bill would also decrease the amounts that could trigger lower-level felonies.

People who brought the substance containing fentanyl into Colorado from out of state and those who possessed equipment for manufacturing pills would be subject to a level 1 drug felony, even at smaller amounts. Manufacturing, distributing or selling any amount of a substance containing fentanyl would also be a level 1 drug felony if someone died from using or consuming it.

A controversial amendment to the bill that passed April 13 would make simple possession of more than 1 gram, but not more than 4 grams, of a fentanyl compound a level 4 drug felony. Currently, possession of most controlled substances is a misdemeanor in Colorado.

Under HB-1326, people convicted of crimes involving fentanyl would have to undergo mandatory addiction treatment. Harm reduction workers oppose this position, noting that research suggests forcing someone into treatment doesn’t work to improve their condition.

The latest version of HB-1326 would also provide $20 million to help law enforcement agencies, schools and other organizations purchase the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone in bulk. It would set aside $5.9 million for grants to harm reduction organizations that educate communities on how to use naloxone, provide clean syringes and fentanyl testing strips, and make referrals to treatment.

The bill includes $3 million to help county jails incorporate medication-assisted treatment, which involves prescribing medications such as buprenorphine, methadone and naltrexone to help relieve opioid withdrawal symptoms or block cravings. Another $1.9 million would go to the Department of Public Health and Environment for a public education campaign around fentanyl.

In the House, most Democrats voted in support of HB-1326, while most Republicans were opposed. But there were exceptions on both sides.

Republicans who voted “yes” were Reps. Richard Holtorf of Akron, Lynch, Janice Rich of Grand Junction, Shane Sandridge of Colorado Springs, Tonya Van Beber of Eaton, Kevin Van Winkle of Highlands Ranch and Dan Woog of Erie.

The Democratic state lawmakers who voted “no” included Reps. Jennifer Bacon of Denver, Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez of Denver, Matt Gray of Broomfield, Chris Kennedy of Lakewood and Steven Woodrow of Denver. Some of those legislators voiced concerns about creating a new felony crime for drug possession.

“I do appreciate all of the good parts in this bill around harm reduction, around options for treatment, but I cannot support the felonization, nor can I support the forced treatment,” Gonzales-Gutierrez said before the vote.

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Faith Miller
Faith Miller

Reporter Faith Miller covers the Colorado Legislature, immigration and other stories for Colorado Newsline.

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