On May 11, Colorado legislators approved House Bill 22-1326 with less than two hours remaining in the 2022 session.
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To push the bill over the finish line, a House and Senate conference Committee was appointed to create a compromise that could pass both chambers.
It was ultimately passed in the House by a vote of 35-30 and in the Senate by a vote of 27-8.
HB 22-1326 was signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis on May 25.
In general, the bill creates tougher penalties for fentanyl distribution and provides more treatment options for dependent users, while funding drug education. It also provides money for Naloxone, a drug that reverses opioid overdose.
The bill, an attempt to deal with the state’s growing fentanyl crisis, was contentious, largely because of a provision that could potentially make possession of up to 4 grams of the exceedingly deadly drug, a misdemeanor.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, law enforcement agencies warned against passing the bill without more stringent possession penalties.
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser provided written testimony about the bill, which he supported, with reservations.
“In 2021, the United States reached a terrifying threshold by losing over 100,000 lives to drug overdoses during a single year. That number exceeds deaths from car crashes and gun violence deaths combined for that year. Stated simply, we are facing an addiction crisis and it is a deadly one,” Weiser wrote. “The majority of these overdose deaths are from opioids and, increasingly, those deaths are because of fentanyl. According to the District of Colorado U.S. Attorney’s Office, fentanyl overdose deaths in our State grew to over 800 in 2021.”
He then went on to list changes he thought were necessary to make the bill stronger.
“One, we should devote significant resources to law enforcement for interrupting the supply chain of fentanyl. By preventing fentanyl from reaching our State and removing pills before they ever reach the street, we can save thousands of lives. Two, the legislature should update the State’s drug possession laws to account for the deadliness of fentanyl. Last year, former U.S. Attorney Dunn and I urged the General Assembly to do just that, updating the possession penalties that apply to “those who possess enough fentanyl to kill hundreds or thousands of people,” Weiser’s testimony said.
Rep. Kerry Tipper, D-Lakewood, served on the conference committee. She said the compromise language would still allow law enforcement to charge someone who possessed 1 to 4 grams of fentanyl with a felony.
However, prosecutors will have to prove that the defendant was aware they were in possession of the drug — something that could ultimately be difficult — because fentanyl is commonly mixed with other drugs to increase potency, or sold to unsuspecting buyers as a synthetic opioid like oxycodone.
The bill will cost $38.9 million for the first year. Part of that money will come from American Rescue Plan Act funds the state received from the federal government. Some parts of the bill went into effect when it was signed into law, while others won’t take effect until January 2023.
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