The first of three bills attempting to deal once again with fentanyl won approval from a House panel on Tuesday.
House Bill 1167, which applies to the state's Good Samaritan law, attempts to fix problems that the sponsor said came out of last year's omnibus legislation on the deadly drug.
As amended by last year's House Bill 1326, the law now says individuals are immune from arrest and prosecution if they report an overdose to law enforcement or first responders, stay on the scene and cooperate.
But fentanyl was not included in the right place in the Good Samaritan law, and supporters of HB1167 say that could create felony charges for someone possessing drugs who are trying to do the right thing.
Right now, "people are very afraid to call" for fear of those charges, according to Lisa Raville of the Harm Reduction Action Center.
"We broke the Good Samaritan" law, bill sponsor Rep. Chris deGruy Kennedy told Colorado Politics. "We created a new felony fentanyl possession law."
That, he said, wasn't intended.
Fentanyl, used legitimately as a medical anesthetic, is a synthetic opioid that has become a dominant player in the illicit market, and it's increasingly being mixed into other substances. It's cheaper and produces a stronger, more fleeting "high," according to experts. But its potency in small quantities makes it unlike any other substance that preceded it in the drug supply, spurring heated debate about how to address it.
On the one hand, advocates like Raville argue that further criminalization won't improve the situation. On the other hand stands law enforcers and their allies, who say policymakers should treat fentanyl like "the deadly" substance it is.
No one testified against deGruy Kennedy's bill in the House Judiciary Committee.
Raville told the committee that people who use drugs are the "true first responders" in an overdose crisis if they have access to naloxone. They're also the primary witnesses to overdoses but they have a lot of good reasons to not engage with 911 — and the biggest is fear of law enforcement, Raville said, adding last year's bill eroded the Good Samaritan law.
"We need people to stay" on hand and cooperate, she said.
To highlight the fear people have about calling 911, Aubrey Wild with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless told the story of a man who was recently released from jail and overdosed. Someone called 911 with directions on where to find the man, who was passed out in an alley. He survived, but Wild said it shows the fear that people have of sticking around to wait for law enforcers or first responders or even taking life-saving action during an overdose related medical emergency.
Had the caller stayed with the man, the 911 dispatcher could have walked the caller through emergency assistance, Wild said.
Others haven't been so lucky, she said.
Tessa Torgesen, who works with people who use drugs by distributing sterile syringes, safe injection supplies, fentanyl test strips and Narcan, said she is seeing firsthand how the weakening of the Good Samaritan law has harmed the progress made in overdose prevention — occurring at a time when overdose deaths are on the rise nationwide.
She recounted the story of a woman whose husband overdosed but didn't call 911 for fear of being arrested because she possessed fentanyl and her husband was on probation for felony drug charges.
It's more important now than ever for people who use drugs to feel safe calling 911, said Torgesen, whose own life was saved with Narcan.
The harm reduction community — whose members advocate for intervention programs and oppose tougher penalties for crimes — raised immediate concerns once the legislature adopted the fentanyl legislation last year, said Jose Esquibel, who is with the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention.
The law did not link the call Good Sam law to the new penalties for possession, he said, adding his group had to put out an alert to its coalition that the Good Sam law did not apply to fentanyl.
One group that stayed away from the hearing was the Colorado District Attorneys' Council, which is divided on the bill, according to Tim Lane.
However, Denver District Attorney Beth McCann spoke in favor of the measure and affirmative defense, the section that has caused some heartburn for district attorneys.
Under HB 1167, a person who is charged with distribution of less than four grams of fentanyl but stays on the scene of an overdose has an affirmative defense that can be used if the dealer is prosecuted.
McCann said prosecutors don't want drug dealers to avoid prosecution but that the intent is really around sharing drugs, not dealing them.
The bill focuses "on situations where people are providing drugs to a friend or a girlfriend, boyfriend, and they are using them together with the intention of consuming the drugs," and then someone overdoses, she said.
In those kinds of situations, McCann said it's unlikely a person would be prosecuted.
"It's more important to come down on the side of saving lives, given the immediacy of an overdose situation," McCann said. "Although I know there are some in the DA community who are not particularly enamored with this bill, I believe that it's more important to allow us to save lives in these very difficult" and sad situations.
McCann added they still intend to prosecute those who are involved in widespread distribution.
Broadly speaking, advocates of tougher penalties to crime, particularly the distribution of fentanyl, argue that the state's lenient approach is contributing to Colorado's grim overdoses.
Last year, Deputy Chief Adrian Vasquez of the Colorado Springs police department told a House panel that any possession of fentanyl should be a felony, that there is no “relatively safe amount of fentanyl” and public policy should demonstrate its seriousness.
In pushing for the 2022 legislation, supporters of tougher penalties said even one pill can kill and argued there's no middle ground when dealing with a substance as deadly as fentanyl.
They said users often don't know what they're taking and fentanyl also puts first responders at risk.
Monday marked the one-year anniversary of the deaths of five people in a Commerce City apartment.
Police Chief Gregory Sadar, who also represents the state's chiefs of police association, asked for an amendment to exempt manufacturers and dealers from the Good Samaritan law.
"Expanding the immunity to those who manufacture and distribute the drug is problematic for us," Sadar said.
"We continue in Colorado to take a more and more permissive position towards drug use," said Sadar, who added that it leads to the overdose crisis. "We want to make sure we take a position that incentivize people to call."
"But it's also a sad commentary," he added, that people have to be incentivized to save their neighbors.
HB 1167 was amended at deGruy Kennedy's behest to exempt the manufacturers, although that drew opposition from two committee Democrats. The bill passed on a 10-2 vote and now heads to the full House.
A second bill on fentanyl that intends to address the issue of "knowingly" possessing fentanyl, sponsored by House Minority Leader Mike Lynch, R-Wellington, was pulled from the committee's schedule.
The third bill dealing with fentanyl is in the state Senate.
Sponsored by Sens. Kyle Mullica, D-Thornton and Byron Pelton, R-Sterling, Senate Bill 109 seeks to create a level 1 drug felony, along with mandatory sentencing, for controlled substance distribution that results in death. It's similar to a provision in HB 1326, but SB 109 applies to more than just fentanyl.
The measure, which is supported by the Colorado District Attorney's Council, is scheduled for the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on March 6.
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