DENVER – Colorado officials on Thursday announced legislation that would boost law enforcement resources to fight the distribution of fentanyl, part of efforts to stem an opioid crisis that has the state on track to surpass last year’s record for the largest number of overdose deaths in a single year.
The proposed law, which will be introduced during the 2022 legislative session, aims to disrupt drug supply chains, dismantle drug networks, increase public awareness of fentanyl risks and increase the ability to identify fentanyl production during distribution, Republican state Sen. Kevin Priola said.
The measure was announced at a news conference in which state Attorney General Phil Weiser, lawmakers from both parties and law enforcement officials called for increased public awareness about fentanyl, additional law enforcement investigative resources and stronger legal penalties for the drug’s distribution.
“We are in the greatest overdose crisis in our nation’s history,” Democratic state Sen. Brittany Pettersen said, noting that those dying are not only people with longstanding substance abuse problems.
Last year, 1,477 people in Colorado died from drug overdoses, mostly opioids, according to data from the state Health Department. Denver City Attorney Kristin Bronson told the City Council on Monday that current estimates have Colorado surpassing 1,800 fatal overdoses this year, Colorado Politics reported.
The trajectory of overdoses in the state has been one way, with Weiser using the example of El Paso County, which had four overdoses in 2016 and is on track to have more than 100 fentanyl-related overdoses this year.
Nationwide more than 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses from May 2020 to April 2021, a new milestone that experts tie to the COVID-19 pandemic and the growing prevalence of fentanyl in the illicit drug supply. Fentanyl is a highly lethal opioid that five years ago surpassed heroin as the type of drug involved in the most overdose deaths.
Weiser said the epidemic is 25 years in the making – beginning with prescription painkillers and now being replaced by illegal fentanyl.
“Those deadly pills are marketed to look like they’re the old prescription pills, but they’re not,” he said.
Tami Gottsegen, a mother whose son Braden Burks died in 2019 from an accidental fentanyl overdose, spoke about a popular, straight-A student who bought two pills from an acquaintance expecting them to be some type of painkiller. After taking one of the pills, her son died.
“Braden and I talked about the dangers. I used the analogy of playing Russian roulette,” Gottsegen said. “Brady even promised me that I had nothing to worry about. Of course, I didn’t take that at face value, but the problem was, Brady believed it. Kids think they’re invincible.”
District Attorney Michael Dougherty, whose district includes Boulder County, said the state needs more resources for substance abuse treatment, noting that Colorado ranks in the bottom 10 states for treatment availability. He also called for more law enforcement resources and stiffer state penalties for people selling deadly drugs.
“If you agree with me that addiction is a public health crisis, then we should go hard after the people who are preying on those in crisis,” Dougherty said.
Gottsegen called Colorado's laws “antiquated” for prosecuting fentanyl distribution, adding that the man who sold her son the pills is currently serving time in a federal prison because the state doesn’t have a law to accommodate the crime.
Weiser said officials have an opportunity to re-evaluate penalties for drug distribution, suggesting that “maybe a felony charge would be appropriate.”
The Colorado state Legislature’s 2022 session begins on Jan. 12.