Colorado’s New Fentanyl Crime and Funding Official After Governor Polis Signs Reform Legislation

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From July 1, police and prosecutors will be able to charge criminals for possession of more than one gram of fentanyl or any substance containing it. It’s a major change to a sweeping bill that was signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis on Wednesday.

“Across our state, people are just sick of the pain this dangerous new drug is inflicting on our communities,” Polis said from the steps of the state Capitol. Behind him stood more than a dozen people holding pictures of loved ones who had died from drug use.

The new fentanyl law dominated the 2022 legislative agenda, and negotiations continued until the final hours of the legislative session two weeks ago. The proposal was met with opposition from members of both parties, primarily due to its changes to criminal penalties.

“I have never tackled an issue as difficult as this,” said Democratic House Speaker Alec Garnett, who led the bill.

“At every step, from left to right, people have tried to defeat this legislation because they would rather, either for political gain or for their own finger, nothing was done.

Currently, Colorado residents can be charged with criminal possession if they possess more than four grams of a substance containing fentanyl. This is the threshold set for many drugs in a 2019 law aimed at reducing the incarceration of drug users.

Under the new law, charges can be assessed for anything over a single gram, or about 10 pills. On Wednesday, Garnett said a change was needed to “take pills off the street.”

Jessica Chavez, right, holds a photo of her daughter Yesenia Chavez after signing Colorado’s new fentanyl law at the state Capitol. Yesenia Chavez died after taking a counterfeit Percocet pill containing fentanyl. Also seen are Jessica Chavez’s niece, Nayeli Ortiz, and daughter Yani Chavez. (Andrew Kenney/CPR News)

But even on the last day of the session, Garnett said, some Republicans and law enforcement officials had tried to defeat the bill.

These right-wing critics wanted a “zero tolerance” approach that would allow criminal penalties for anyone who possesses the drug, even if they had unknowingly purchased other fentanyl-containing substances. They say it was necessary to crack down on street traffickers and deter drug addicts.

On the other side, criminal justice reformers warned that tougher penalties for possession would only drive drug addicts further into despair. Some treatment and harm reduction experts have said people can carry dozens of pills due to the highly addictive and short-lived effects of fentanyl, putting them at risk of crime for their personal drug use.

The bill passed with the support of a strong majority of Democrats and about a third of Republicans in the Legislature.

During the signing of the bill, members of the Denver chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America held cardboard signs that read “End Mass Incarceration” and “Recoveries Not Felonies.”

Democrats tried to temper the new charges by including “safeguards.” Criminal possession charges can only lead to jail, not jail. And new crimes can be downgraded to misdemeanors if people enter treatment programs after being convicted.

The new law also goes well beyond criminal penalties for possession, as lawmakers pointed out on Wednesday.

These include requiring prisons to offer drug treatment for opiate withdrawal and making nearly $20 million available for the distribution of opiate antagonists, sometimes called overdose reversal drugs. , like Narcan, and $10 million for the treatment. Another $600,000 is earmarked for test strips to help users identify fentanyl-containing drugs, and $5 million for a three-year education campaign.

But Brandon Payne, a DSA protester, said he expected law enforcement to continue pushing for a tough on crime approach.

“That is not enough for them. They always need more. And the police and prosecutors have shown that they cannot be trusted to use their power to keep people safe. It’s just a matter of politics,” he said.

“Stick the pieces back”

Jessica Chavez was one of the bereaved family members who supported the bill. Her daughter Yesenia died after taking a fake Percocet pill containing fentanyl last year.

She was a strong supporter of the Million Dollar Education Act. As for tougher criminal penalties, she said, “it is what it is.” She hopes the new charges will encourage people to break away from drug addiction.

“It’s been emotional every day,” she said of the process. “And now it’s time to pick up our pieces.”

Many treatment experts and harm reduction advocates warn that creating stricter drug laws does little to change drug use, as research shows. However, some researchers believe that people can change their substance use behavior when personally faced with a criminal charge – but there are questions about the ethics and effectiveness of forcing people to follow a treatment.

Crimes are likely to be used differently by the state’s many police and prosecution districts, and the availability of treatments differs significantly from state to state, meaning that people from certain communities may make face more severe consequences.

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