In final hours of session, Colorado passes revised fentanyl penalty bill with exceptions for unknown possession

In the last hours of Colorado’s 2022 legislative session, House Bill 1326 re-passed in the House with a vote of 35-30 on Wednesday. Leading up to the vote, a bipartisan conference committee reached an agreement after the House failed to approve Senate amendments earlier this week. The bill now just needs Gov. Jared Polis’s signature before becoming law.

 

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At issue was the bill’s level 3 felony charge for possession of 1 to 4 grams of fentanyl regardless of whether the person knew the composition of the drugs in question. Last-minute revisions to the bill would allow a jury or judge to decide whether to lower the charge to a level 1 misdemeanor in cases where fentanyl was unknowingly possessed.

Drug enforcement officials have noted that Interstate 70 remains one of the main drug corridors in the state and endorse criminalizing smaller quantities of fentanyl possession to help stop its spread. Debate on the conference committee’s decision drew arguments from both sides ahead of the vote, with Republicans advocating for tougher enforcement provisions.

 

“The problem is we need to focus on the problem on the streets, not the problems in the courts,” said Representative Richard Holtorf (R – Akron) on the House floor. “Because the streets are where Colorado citizens are dying.

There is a sizable and intentional investment that is being made by Colorado and this General Assembly under the leadership of our speaker, and my good friend and colleague, Representative Lynch. $38.9 million. But I’m afraid that this investment will not stop the death of our citizens.

What I fear is the dealers, the pushers, the reckless promoters and users who prey on our citizens, who prey on your friends and my friends, your family and my family, members of our communities who may be young and careless and experimenting, the homeless, the desperate who are dying, will not get the benefit that we need to give them as we try to solve this very difficult problem.”

 

Democrats insisted on allowing lighter sentencing for people who unknowingly had drugs laced with fentanyl.

 

“What the conference committee did was work to create a way for someone who was facing felony charges, who unknowingly has fentanyl, to find a path to true justice and not face those felony charges,” said Representative Leslie Herod (D-Denver) on the house floor.

 

The passage of HB 1326 comes as federal data revealed on Wednesday more than 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2021. The National Center for Health Statistics attribute the trend to challenges exacerbated by the pandemic: social isolation, lost access to treatment, and the spread of fentanyl—a deadly drug 100 times more potent than morphine.

Colorado witnessed 1,913 drug overdose deaths in 2021, a 26.52% increase from the previous year and higher than the 15% national average.