DENVER – Two Colorado senators plan to introduce a bill in 2022 that aims to address the rising number of fentanyl overdoses and deaths, as the state is on pace to see its highest number of fatal overdoses ever this year.
Colorado recorded 1,477 overdose deaths in 2020 and has already seen more than 1,340 this year. The state says the number of fentanyl-related overdoses rose by 50% from 2019 to 2020 and that there are increasing cases of fentanyl overdoses because the drug is being disguised as other prescription opioid pills or is being cut into other recreational drugs.
Attorney General Phil Weiser said in a news conference said the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment estimates more than 1,800 Coloradans will die this year of drug overdoses.
According to national data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more Americans died of drug overdoses last year than in car crashes and gun violence deaths combined, Weiser added.
Sen. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, and Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Brighton, said at a news conference Thursday alongside Attorney General Phil Weiser, local sheriffs and district attorneys, and the parents of a young man who died of a fentanyl overdose, that they would be introducing legislation in next year’s legislative session to try to address what they call a public health crisis.
The two senators and the law enforcement officials who spoke at Thursday’s news conference said the bill would try to address several facets of the fentanyl distribution system as well as treatment programs.
They said it would include additional funding for law enforcement agencies to investigate fentanyl deaths, the dealers behind the drug and how those supply chains could be shut down. Other facets, the senators said, would include changes to how fentanyl distribution and possession cases are charged by prosecutors and how to better treat people with addictions.
A law passed three years ago makes possession of four grams or less of an illegal drug, including fentanyl, a misdemeanor crime. However, because fentanyl is more potent than other drugs, part of the bill would look to make a lower possession limit a felony. During the press conference, Weiser said 4 grams of fentanyl is enough to kill thousands of people.
“These grant dollars will allow local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to work together to share critical information and resources to combat this crisis, and will also help raise public awareness about the dangers of fentanyl,” Pettersen said in a statement. “But we must do more, which is why we are also working to increase access to lifesaving treatment that is desperately needed for those who are struggling with substance use disorders to help prevent these tragedies before they occur.”
Earlier this month, law enforcement officials in Colorado announced more than 100,000 pills laced with fentanyl had been seized in a cartel-linked distribution ring, which the law enforcement officials who spoke Thursday said would have to happen more often in order to bring down the fentanyl rings and the top-level dealers.
Several parents who lost children to fentanyl overdoses warned of the instantaneous reaction the drug can cause in unsuspecting users, who often believe they are taking a different pill or using a different substance without knowing it contains fentanyl, the officials said.
“In a time of experimentation, we’re not even talking about becoming addicted to an illicit drug. You’re talking about losing your life the first time,” said Andrea Thomas, the executive director for Voice for Awareness, which she started after her daughter died after taking a counterfeit pill.
Tami Gottsegen spoke at the news conference about her son Braden, who died at age 24 after taking a pill that ended up being fentanyl back in 2019.
“It’s as bad as they say it is,” she said. “The complexity of it all is that everybody just thinks it’s an opioid or counterfeit opioid crisis. It’s not that at all. It’s fentanyl.”
She said she believes every overdose death should be investigated and every drug dealer prosecuted – something the prosecutors and law enforcement officials said they want to happen too, but which they said they would need more funding and manpower to address.
“This is a public health issue,” said 17th Judicial District Attorney Brian Mason. “…This has to be a collaborative effort.”
Pettersen said she and Priola would be coming up with recommendations on how to dedicate $450 million toward transforming the system for treatment and investigation.
“They don’t have the resources to dedicate the time to investigate these deaths because they’re happening at such a high rate. And to prosecute the people who responsible and ultimately share that information across Colorado and local municipalities – we’re going to work on a grant program to make sure that they have the resources to do just that.”