Weiser - fentanyl

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser speaks during a news conference in October 2019 in Denver.

Attorney General Phil Weiser's office has discussed amending the legislature's sweeping fentanyl bill with sponsors to tighten penalties around simple possession of the drug.

A Weiser spokesman confirmed the discussions Friday, shortly after Colorado Public Radio reported that some Democrats at the Capitol may try to amend a bipartisan bill to make it a felony to possess small quantities of fentanyl. In December, Weiser told The Denver Gazette that he supported that position, which has drawn criticism from harm-reduction and criminal justice reform advocates.

The attorney general's position has oscillated between calling for harsher penalties and supporting the fentanyl legislation as drafted. Weiser earlier called the proposal a "much-needed stride forward to remove this deadly potions from our streets."

Weiser's current position hews closely to his original support for stiffer penalties against fentanyl possession.

"The AG has said he supports many of the components of the fentanyl bill and the state legislature must update the state’s possession laws to account for this deadly poison," Weiser spokesman Lawrence Pacheco said in an email Friday. 

Pacheco said Weiser's office has discussed "improvements" Weiser wants to see in the bill.

When asked specifically about what improvements the attorney general wants to see, Pacheco replied, "Stronger penalties for possession and resources for law enforcement to investigate and disrupt trafficking of fentanyl."

If passed as written now, the bill would tighten penalties for possessing any amount of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that was involved in roughly 50% of Colorado's fatal overdoses last year, with an intent to distribute it. It would also spend $20 million on Naloxone; launch a statewide fentanyl education program; expand funding opportunities for harm-reduction organizations; and improve support offerings for inmates upon their release from jail. 

But it would not make it a felony to possess 4 grams or fewer of fentanyl. In 2019, the legislature passed a bipartisan bill to make possession of 4 grams or fewer or many substances, including fentanyl, a misdemeanor. As overdoses have spiked in recent years, some in law enforcement and elsewhere have pointed to that change as a primary factor in why deaths have surged.

The change to possession laws took effect in 2020. 

Fatal overdoses have surged nationwide over the last several years, as fentanyl — stronger than heroin and lethal in small doses — has become an increasingly dominant presence in the illicit drug market.

A congressional report issued in February said a shift in the drug supply, coupled with the pandemic, has driven deaths in the United States to historic highs and that fentanyl or other synthetics like it are here to stay.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, Colorado's rate for fatal overdoses involving synthetic drugs is below the national average. But it's shot upward since 2018 at a faster clip than all but one state.

Indeed, the legislation comes amid heightened attention to the drug's increasingly deadly impact in the state. Fatal overdoses involving the drug have skyrocketed since 2015, the product of shifting economics and priorities within the illicit drug trade and accelerated by the pandemic. More than 800 Coloradans have already died after ingesting fentanyl in 2021, according to state data. That represents a roughly 50% increase from 2020 and more than triple the number of deaths from 2019.

In pushing for harsher penalties and departing from Democrats' prevailing main-line position, Weiser joined Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Police Chief Paul Pazen, as well various law enforcement groups, including those representing Colorado's sheriffs and police chiefs, in calling on the legislature to do more to address fentanyl possession. 

But others on the public health and advocacy side vehemently oppose that approach, warning that increased criminal penalties would simply return to old "War on Drugs" policies that have failed to stop drug use in the past.

Lisa Raville, who runs the Harm Reduction Action Center in Denver, has criticized what she says are efforts to incarcerate the very people who are dying as a result of the shift in the drug market. She's repeatedly called for improved harm reduction measures, from more available naloxone to a renewed discussion about safe, monitored drug-use sites in Denver. She seeks to squarely frame the situation as a public health, not criminal justice, crisis.

The bill is scheduled to have its first hearing at the Capitol next week, though any amendments may delay that. While law enforcement has called for tighter penalties, harm reduction experts and reform advocates have decried any effort to further make drug possession a felony. They've argued that such a change would simply revert the state to policies that, they say, failed in the previous fronts of the War on Drugs. 

A coalition of more than 60 groups, led by the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, sent a letter to legislators last month urging them to approach addressing fentanyl as a public health crisis and to devote the bulk of resources to support, education and treatment.

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