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The fentanyl battle lines are drawn… But do we really need a war on this new drug?



For months, the topic of fentanyl has dominated local news coverage. In February, five people died in Commerce City after unknowingly ingesting a lethal amount of the drug in what they thought was cocaine. Earlier this month, a Colorado Springs high school student died at her desk from a fentanyl overdose. Those cases are just two among the numerous fentanyl fatalities that happen every week in Colorado.

State data shows that 854 Coloradans died from fentanyl-involved overdoses last year — about a 40% rise from the year before. Governor Polis has vowed to make the crisis a top priority, but state lawmakers and public officials have been hotly divided over how to tackle the worsening issue.

Finally, last week, the governor and  state legislators debuted their strategy for combating the crisis with a highly anticipated new bill draft.


In a nutshell, the bill proposes to implement stricter penalties for people distributing fentanyl, but not for those who simply possess it for personal use.

The bill would lower the threshold for the amount of fentanyl that could lead to a felony charge. Under current law, possessing more than 225 grams of fentanyl with an intent to distribute is a Class 1 drug felony. Under the new bill, that threshold would be lowered to 50 grams.

Additionally, if a dealer is linked to fentanyl distribution that resulted in someone’s death, that penalty is also a Class 1 drug felony, meaning potentially 8 to 32 in years in prison and up to $1 million in fines.

However, having less than 4 grams of fentanyl for personal use (aka, no intent to distribute) would remain a misdemeanor, as established by a law passed in 2019.

(Although, under the new bill, some individuals charged with possession may be required to undergo a drug treatment evaluation.)

The bill would also set aside about $20 million to put toward expanding access to Naloxone, the overdose-reversing drug. Another $3 million would help expand medication-assisted treatment in jails. An unspecified amount of money would go toward fentanyl testing strip distribution and a statewide education campaign.

But nobody — on either side of the party line — appears to be completely satisfied with the proposal.


Republicans are decrying the bill’s “lax” stance on fentanyl possession and are calling for the 2019 misdemeanor bill to be overturned.

“This drug is so deadly that possession of any amount should have a felony consequence,” said a lobbying group of law enforcement leaders in a statement. “Since no amount of fentanyl is safe, this coalition will seek amendments to elevate ‘simple possession’ to a felony. Colorado cannot afford to take small, incremental steps to address the fentanyl crisis.”

Notably, Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen likened fentanyl to bath salts and rohypnol, the “date-rape drug” — two substances that currently carry a felony charge for possession.

Mayor Hancock has expressed similar sentiments, saying in a statement: “Unless we work to deter people from possessing amounts that are enough to kill up to 2,000 people, we cannot say we have fully addressed the problem.”


Advocates for criminal justice reform and substance abuse experts argue that criminalization and incarceration are far from the solution, and we have 50 years of data from ineffective drug war policies to prove it.

If you jail a dealer, they’re quickly and easily replaced by other dealers, critics argue, and if you jail someone suffering from substance use disorder, it will only cause more harm to them.

“We do not believe people with an addiction should be made felons for simple drug possession,” the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition recently wrote in a letter to lawmakers.

Meanwhile, Lisa Raville, executive director of the Harm Reduction Action Center, is wondering why legislators are still resisting overdose prevention sites.

“When we don’t have an overdose prevention site, it doesn’t mean that folks aren’t using — it means they’re using and dying in Starbucks, in King Soopers, in libraries, and RTD transit stations,” Raville told City Cast Denver. “We love people who use drugs and don’t think that they should die.”

🎧 Hear more: On today’s City Cast Denver episode, Raville chats with host Bree Davies to break down the new bill, explain some criticisms of the policy, and talk about what a harm-reduction approach to the fentanyl crisis could look like. 


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