DENVER — The death of five people in an apartment in Commerce City due to an apparent fentanyl overdose is sparking a political debate about the current drug possession laws in Colorado.
At issue is a 2019 law, passed with bi-partisan support at the state legislature that changes the classification for possession of up to four grams of most drugs, including fentanyl, to a class one misdemeanor instead of a felony. The legislators who sponsored the bill said it would help remove a stigma from drug addicts as they worked through recovery and reduce the jail population in communities.
But as fentanyl overdose deaths have increased over the years, police and prosecutors have blamed the new law.
“What has happened is our legislators and our laws have not caught up with the sophistication of drug manufacturing and those sell it,” said Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock, a Republican.
“We need to address the addiction issue completely differently than the enforcement issue.”
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Spurlock said fentanyl overdoses are happening all over the state, including in his county. He said two people recently died in their home there after procuring drugs they didn’t realize were laced with fentanyl.
“We need to address the addiction issue completely differently than the enforcement issue,” the sheriff said.
“We have to have the tools to prosecute them to arrest them to seize their property and to go up the chain.”
But Colorado State Representative Leslie Herod, a Democrat who sponsored the bill, said the misdemeanor charge that still exists for people in possession should be plenty of justification for police and prosecutors to conduct an appropriate investigation.
“They still have the tools to be arrested,” she said. “They still have the tools to confiscate those drugs off of those users, and they still have the ability to put those users in jail for 18 months.”
“In Denver right now, we are seeing cases going through the judicial branch right now for people with 2 grams of anything mixed with fentanyl. And they are being tried and convicted. So I think we need to step away from the back and forth of who’s to blame.”
Herod said she is working on legislation to stiffen penalties against anyone who knowingly distributes fentanyl.
“We need to create a bill that solves the problem that we’re in right now,” she said. “Right now we have fentanyl on the streets and people not knowing that they’re using it so it’s a more complex conversation than simple possession or felony possession.”
“I think there needs to be changes in the definition of distribution and ensuring when we have pure fentanyl in high level distribution that we get those folks off the streets.”
Herod said she is also working on legislation to beef up resources for people who are addicted to drugs, to help them overcome it.
“If someone gets fentanyl, doesn’t know they have fentanyl and then survives that almost deadly encounter, should they be a felon or do they need access to resources,” she said. “I think they need access to treatment and we need to talk to them and figure out how they got that drug in the first place.”