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Colorado fentanyl bill allows schools to distribute testing strips

"It's a harm reduction tool, much like you'd say we have fire extinguishers, and we have AEDs, and we have naloxone, and we have fentanyl test strips."

DENVER — Fentanyl kills more Coloradans than any other drug in Colorado.

At a news conference inside the state Capitol, Gov. Jared Polis (D) stood side-by-side with Republican lawmakers and prosecutors, as a bipartisan bill to increase penalties for dealing fentanyl was introduced.

"In my state of the state, I called for stronger criminal penalties, and why today's rollout is so important," said Polis.

The bill would strengthen the penalty for distribution of fentanyl, but not for possession of fentanyl. That is one reason police chiefs and county sheriffs chose not to attend the news conference. The County Sheriffs of Colorado and Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police put out a news release about the absence of law enforcement.

"Unfortunately, the draft bill falls short of protecting our communities from the significant harm that has been increasingly inflicted upon them in recent years by failing to address the possession of fentanyl. We must re-establish firm criminal consequences for dealing and possessing deadly amounts of this dangerous drug. The bill’s provisions can and should do more," the statement read.

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One part of the bill that was not discussed at the news conference was the part that would allow schools to allow fentanyl testing strips to be handed out to students.

"There will probably be questions about it. What should schools be doing? What can they be doing. There's the 'can' or 'may' versus what 'they must do.' And this is one of the 'can' or 'may be doing,'" said Dr. Robert Valuck from the University of Colorado Center for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention.

Valuck said he had not seen any data that suggests the access of fentanyl testing strips leads to increased drug use, similar to a decades old argument that access to condoms in school leads to sex.

"It's a harm reduction tool, much like you'd say we have fire extinguishers and we have AEDs, and we have naloxone, and we have fentanyl test strips, and we have all these harm reducing things around to keep people safe and keep them alive," said Valuck.

Ahead of the bill's introduction, the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition and the Harm Reduction Action Center released a report that said enhanced penalties would not reduce the supply of fentanyl.

"In my opinion, we already have criminal penalties in the books, and it does nothing to really deter drug use, drug distribution, etc.," said Terri Hurst of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. "Our mission is to eliminate the overuse of the criminal justice system and advance community health and safety."

Her group has not seen the language of the new fentanyl bill yet, but the report is clear about focusing on greater access to naloxone, the drug that reverses the effects of an overdose, and spending additional money on behavioral health.

"Because we have failed so miserably in our state to support behavioral health, we have over relied on the justice system and with this influx of federal stimulus dollars, it's an opportunity to really start trying to shore up harm reduction prevention, treatment recovery support services for people," said Hurst.

RELATED: Polis, top legislators tout proposed prescription to fentanyl crisis; others say legislation falls short

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