Law enforcement says Colorado’s new fentanyl bill doesn’t go far enough

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Denver Chief of Police Paul Pazen at headquarters, June 23, 2021.

When it comes to why he wants the legislature to go further in regulating fentanyl, Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen talks about bath salts.

Pazen and other law enforcement leaders in Colorado point out that it is a felony to carry around even a small amount of the drug called bath salts, or cathinones. It’s the same with GHB, ketamine, and rohypnol, or the date rape drug. 

But the newest legislative proposal attempting to crack down on fentanyl doesn’t characterize the synthetic opioid as seriously; people carrying four grams or less face a misdemeanor unless prosecutors can prove they were selling the drug.

“This is something like we’ve never seen,” Pazen said. “People are dying unwittingly and unknowingly … You can’t ignore that people are dying. In our city, more than one a day are dying. How do folks square that?”

Many of those deaths are accidental — people who think they’re taking a different drug and don’t realize it’s laced with a deadly level of fentanyl.

Law enforcement leaders say the new bipartisan bill that aims to crack down on fentanyl distributors and dealers won’t likely gain their support unless lawmakers agree to increase the penalties for simple possession.

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

A debate with law enforcement and prosecutors on one side and reformers and addiction experts on the other.

Another law enforcement group, the Colorado Drug Investigators Association, said the current legislation would still allow a person to possess enough fentanyl to kill 2,000 people. 

“The current form of this bill, unfortunately, falls short of the mark,” said Matthew Stoneberger, the president of CDIA. 

However, bill supporters counter that it’s disingenuous to claim someone caught with four grams of pure fentanyl would only be charged with misdemeanor possession. They say prosecutors should be able to prove anyone with that much of the drug intends to distribute it.

This debate at the capitol has pitted law enforcement and prosecutors against criminal justice reformers and addiction experts, who argue laws that punish drug users have never yielded positive results.

“The past 50 years of drug war policies have clearly demonstrated they will not reduce drug supplies,” wrote the Harm Reduction Action Center and the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition in a policy brief released to coincide with the bill.

And not all of those who favor increased penalties for simple possession of fentanyl are opposing the bill.

Adams County District Attorney Brian Mason is presiding over the largest fentanyl-related death investigation in the country. Five people were found dead in a Commerce City apartment in February after taking what they thought was cocaine — but instead had a lethal amount of fentanyl in it.

Mason has been an outspoken proponent to adjust the possession law to reflect the dangerousness of fentanyl. 

But he considers the bill as a crucial first step.

“It’s literally killing our kids and killing the parents of our kids and no one knows more about that than our community,” he said. “This bill will give us important new tools to prosecute.”

That said, Mason intends to continue pushing for lawmakers to look closely at whether possessing even less than 4 grams of fentanyl should be a felony.

“I do believe it should be more than a misdemeanor,” Mason said. “We’re just at the beginning of the process and I expect this bill will go through several iterations through the legislature’s consideration. I look forward to the legislators making it even better.”