DENVER — As Colorado legislators, lobbyists, public health officials and law enforcement seek ways to confront the fentanyl crisis, efforts are complicated by the synthetic opioid's deadly and increasingly omnipresent nature and differing opinions on how the next phase of the drug war should be waged.
An increasing number of Coloradans are fatally overdosing with fentanyl with each passing year, and fatalities have exploded eight-fold since 2018 alone, state data show. The grim trend already triggered a public outcry, and the suspected overdose deaths of five people in Commerce City last month intensified the discussion about what should be done to address the spiraling crisis. Attorney General Phil Weiser and Gov. Jared Polis both vocally support tightening penalties for fentanyl possession, while others decry a return to what they describe as failed drug control policies of past generations.
In the wake of the Commerce City deaths, a 2019 bill that lowered the penalty for possession of less than 4 grams of Schedule II drugs, which includes fentanyl, has drawn intense public scrutiny. But fentanyl's unique placement within the drug trade complicates any attempt to simply reverse that law: A cheap, synthetic opioid manufactured primarily by Mexican cartels with ingredients shipped from China, fentanyl is more lucrative, more available, more powerful and easier to produce than heroin. It's also being mixed into other substances – from cocaine and heroin to methamphetamine, which makes using those substances far more dangerous. This also means efforts to curtail fentanyl possession must take into account the other drugs, as well.
The challenges facing policymakers are technical, and, to some extent philosophical.
Technically speaking, how does the state make possession of smaller amounts of fentanyl a felony when experts expect it to be in an increasing amount of the illicit drug supply from here on out?
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