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Colorado House committee passes fentanyl bill

The bill passed by the committee lowers the threshold for felony possession to one gram of a substance containing fentanyl.

DENVER — After more than 16 hours of testimony and discussion, a state House committee passed a bill Wednesday to strengthen punishments surrounding fentanyl. 

The House Judiciary Committee heard more than 13 hours of testimony over two days and discussed the bill for more than three hours Wednesday before passing it in an 8-3 vote.

The bill, HB22-1326, passed with two amendments:

  • An amendment making it a felony to possess more than one gram of a substance that contains any amount of fentanyl, if the person knew or should have known what they had. Under current law, it is a misdemeanor to possess up to four grams of fentanyl.   
  • An amendment making it a felony to possess a compound mixture that is found to be 60% or more fentanyl was approved with an 8-3 vote.

This bill would strengthen penalties for dealing fentanyl and add resources for treatment. It includes hundreds of thousands of dollars for fentanyl testing strips and millions to distribute Narcan, a drug that helps reverse the effects of an overdose. 

A lot of the conversation on Tuesday and Wednesday, though, centered around possession. 

Most Democratic lawmakers supported the amendment that drops the threshold from four grams to one gram. Lawmakers were concerned that someone who didn't know they were possessing fentanyl would be charged with a felony. The hope is this amendment would avoid that situation.

Tom Raynes, executive director of the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council, said proving a person knew they were possessing fentanyl will be challenging. 

"To prevail on that at trial probably means we need to somehow, during the arrest, get a statement from the defendant as to what they thought they had or what they thought they were buying," he said.

Raynes believes there will be many people who end up with a misdemeanor instead of a felony because prosecutors won't be able to meet that burden.

Tackling laws related to possession, according to Raynes, was not a top priority for most district attorneys in Colorado, but he said they were supportive of lowering the threshold from four grams if it still meant other pieces in the bill would pass.  

"Getting down to one gram seems a little closer to the previously stated philosophy of the legislature to limit it to personal use," he said.

The second amendment came after the Colorado Bureau of Investigation testified that it doesn't have the resources to do testing like this on a mass scale. A spokesperson for CBI said Wednesday they'll make a final determination of need based on what ends up in the passed bill. 

"Again, the bill is written in a very permissive way," Democratic House Speaker Alec Garnett said. "It's not driving CBI, enforcing them to go in this direction. I just know that this is the direction that the state's going to go when it comes to testing these drugs, because again, synthetic opioids is the drug -- the street drug of the future."

The bill still has a long way to go before becoming law, and many more changes could be made. It goes to the House Appropriations Committee next. 

Testimony on the bill began at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, with more than 150 people signed up to speak. There was wide agreement that Colorado needs harsher punishments for dealers and more resources for treatment. Most of the debate Tuesday was over whether drug users should face felony charges.

An amendment that would have made any amount of fentanyl possession a felony failed on a 6-5 vote Wednesday.

> Video from Tuesday: Coloradans line up to testify about fentanyl criminalization in front of state lawmakers

The hearing Tuesday included testimony from a sister of one of the women who died in a suspected fentanyl overdose in Commerce City earlier this year. She said she thinks her sister would much rather be a felon than not be here today with her daughter. 

RELATED: More kids ages 10 - 18 are dying from fentanyl overdoses in Colorado

RELATED: Father warns parents about dangers of fentanyl after losing both sons

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