HB 22-1326 Fentanyl Accountability and Prevention is a bipartisan bill currently making its way through the state house.
Sponsored by Representatives Alec Garnett (D) and Mike Lynch (R) along with State Senators Brittany Pettersen (D) and John Cooke (R), HB 22-1326 is an attempt to address treatment options and change criminal penalties associated with synthetic opiates.
The bill does a lot of things, including development and implementation of statewide prevention and education campaigns to reduce fentanyl use.
But the penalties it establishes for fentanyl possession has several law enforcement agencies including Jeffco’s Sheriff’s Office in opposition to its passage as currently written.
The bill is meant to combat rising death tolls and usage rates of fentanyl. But if passed, possession of up to four grams of fentanyl would still be classified as a misdemeanor offense.
Charges and penalties would be tougher for someone caught in the act of selling the drug. But to some law enforcement, the lethality of the drug makes that a distinction without a difference.
Fentanyl is about 100 times more potent than morphine, according to The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). In the DEA’s estimation, two milligrams of fentanyl is a potentially lethal dose. Doing the math, it follows that since there are 4000 milligrams in four grams, there could potentially be 2000 lethal doses in the amount of fentanyl someone would be charged with a misdemeanor for possessing.
In case the metric system has you somewhat flummoxed and you’d like a real world example, four grams is the equivalent of about a leveled (not heaping) teaspoon of sugar. This is just a rough estimate, because particles of sugar won’t weigh the exact same as fentanyl particles.
In a recent “Behind the Badge” newsletter posted to the Jeffco.us website, Sheriff Jeff Shrader wrote an open letter strongly opposing passage of the bill.
“Currently, the legislation proposes to impart harsher penalties on dealers who sell fentanyl, but fails to render any substantial penalties on those who possess it,” Shrader wrote. “I believe both possessing and dealing should be felony crimes, because even the smallest amount of fentanyl is dangerous and deadly.”
Calling for real and significant consequences for those who use and possess the drug, Shrader said his fear is that fentanyl will bypass a judge and jury and take users straight to the grave.
Referencing a recent fentanyl overdose case where five young people were found dead in a Commerce City apartment, and the public outcry that followed, Shrader said he agrees that treatment, education and the availability of Narcan for first responders are strong priorities. But he thinks a misdemeanor charge for four grams of fentanyl amounts to nothing more than a “slap on the wrist.”
Adams County District Attorney Brian Mason described the scene inside the Commerce City apartment in an interview with Colorado Public Radio.
“They essentially dropped dead where they were. They didn’t have time to call for help,” Mason said. “We’re finding fentanyl in cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine and oxycontin and, even in limited circumstances, we found it in marijuana. This is a huge public safety crisis.”
Denver Mayor, Michael Hancock has also been outspoken about the possession provision. Though he recently tweeted support for the bill, saying there were many solid pieces to it, Hancock implored legislators to revisit the possession penalties.
“While a good start on a tough problem, I believe we must also address possession levels,” Hancock wrote. “The evidence is clear: half of all Denver overdose deaths are related to fentanyl. There is no safe amount of fentanyl unless directed by a physician, and 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 this problem.”
Shrader said this is an issue people should challenge their legislators on and ask why all levels of fentanyl possession don’t warrant a felony charge. He said his office doesn’t want to over-criminalize individuals, but he thinks with a drug as lethal as fentanyl, an intervention like being taken to jail might actually be a step that saves people’s lives.
HB 22-1326 will go before the House Judiciary Committee on April 12.