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Durango’s chief of police calls for greater legal tools to address fentanyl

Colorado legislation would increase penalties, but some say that won’t prevent overdose deaths
Local law enforcement agencies in Durango and La Plata County say House Bill 22-1326, a bill being discussed in the Colorado Legislature, could help them tackle fentanyl trafficking and overdoses. Law enforcement across the state, including Durango Police Department Chief Bob Brammer, has asked for even harsher criminal penalties than those proposed in bill. However, substance abuse care providers argue more severe penalties will hurt Coloradans struggling with addiction. (Drug Enforcement Administration via AP file)

Law enforcement agencies in Durango and La Plata County have been calling for stronger tools to crack down on fentanyl. With a bill introduced in the Colorado Legislature last month, they may get their wish.

House Bill 22-1326 aims to address the growing toll of fentanyl in Colorado’s communities by increasing penalties for possession of fentanyl and expanding access to treatment, among other initiatives. The expansive legislation would help law enforcement in Durango and La Plata County tackle fentanyl, but it does not go far enough, according to local law enforcement.

“There’s a lot of fantastic pieces of legislation in this bill that are very well-intended and I think it can absolutely help our community across the state, including locally here in Durango,” Chief Bob Brammer of the Durango Police Department said. “But the consensus that we have among law enforcement is that (it) falls short in a couple areas. We feel that if this thing gets immortalized into law at this point, it’s going to not give us the tools as local law enforcement to make a difference and save people’s lives.”

Introduced March 25, HB 22-1326 is wide-ranging and has a number of initiatives to address the proliferation of fentanyl in Colorado, ranging from requiring residential addiction treatment for certain offenses to expanded access to fentanyl detection tests. The bill would also require the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to conduct a statewide fentanyl education and prevention campaign.

But much of the focus has been on the stiffer penalties those caught with fentanyl would face.

A 2019 bipartisan bill reduced the possession of 4 grams or less of many drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor, but legislators and law enforcement across the state have since faulted the bill for growing fentanyl deaths.

HB 22-1326 in its original form would make possession of 4 grams or more of a drug that contains any amount of fentanyl a felony. However, Brammer argued that the possession of any drug containing fentanyl, which can be fatal at just 2 milligrams, according to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, should be a felony.

Brammer

“Four grams is like 4 sugar packets that you would get at a restaurant, and that has enough potency to kill about 2,000 people,” he said. “The amendment that they’re working on right now is 1 gram (for a felony) and 1 gram is enough to kill 500-plus people. We’re saying that this drug is so dangerous, so uncontrollable and so unregulated that it’s imperative that any amount of fentanyl needs to be classified as a (felony).”

The House Judiciary Committee met for a 14-hour hearing in Denver beginning on April 12 to vote on an amendment to lower the bill’s limit to 1 gram for a felony. Law enforcement and district attorneys from across the state pushed for more stringent punishments, but a range of addiction experts, legal advocates, defense attorneys and medical professionals spoke against lowering the felony limit, according to reporting from The Denver Post.

They briefed lawmakers that there was no evidence to support the position that stiffening the punishment for fentanyl would reduce drug use or overdose deaths. Rather, it would prevent Coloradans from seeking treatment and support, they said.

Breeah Kinsella, executive director of the Colorado Providers Association, which represents substance use service providers across the state, agreed. Bills like HB 22-1326 often harm Colorado’s most vulnerable populations, including Coloradans of color and those in the LGBTQ+ community.

“Punitive processes do not decrease substance use and definitely don’t decrease substance use disorder. It actually makes people more prone to overdoses when they leave jail because their tolerance has gone down,” she said.

According to the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition and the Denver-based Harm Reduction Action Center, Colorado ranked 29th nationally for overdose deaths in 2020, when possessing 4 grams of many drugs was a misdemeanor, below many other states that had more stringent criminal penalties.

But the House Judiciary Committee voted 8-3 in favor of harsher penalties for those caught with 1 gram or more of fentanyl.

Brammer argued that lowering the limit for a felony was actually meant to help those struggling with addiction.

“We don’t want to fill our jails with people that are addicted to the substance, that’s not what we’re looking for in this scenario,” he said. “What we’re looking for is to be able to have a stiff enough consequence where it’s going to deter people. A consequence that the District Attorney’s Office and the prosecutors are actually going to be able to use to leverage people to get the help and assist them in treating this addiction.”

Brammer said there are other holes in HB 22-1326 that local and statewide law enforcement wants addressed, including immunity for those who “act in good faith” to provide someone else with a fentanyl test, but that lowering the amount of fentanyl a person can possess without a felony was the priority.

Chris Burke, spokesman for the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, said fentanyl would still pose a risk to the county and Southwest Colorado with the legislation.

“Fentanyl is always going to be a problem,” he said. “There’s an ongoing commitment with our office and the police department and I think the biggest thing right now is counterfeit pills. People that are getting these street level pills just don’t know what they’re getting.”

Durango and La Plata County serve as a major corridor for fentanyl and drug trafficking. La Plata County is the only county outside of the Interstate 25 corridor to be classified a high-intensity drug trafficking area by the DEA, Brammer said.

He said DPD continues to see more fentanyl in the Durango area and ultimately HB 22-1326 would help to slow the flow.

In 2020, 540 Coloradans died of fentanyl overdoses, according to CDPHE data. Fentanyl deaths have skyrocketed across Colorado since 2016 when they numbered just 49, data show.

“We’re not trying to criminalize everybody and put everybody in jail because we know that doesn’t work,” Brammer said. “But we need a mechanism to prompt people to get them into treatment settings and curtail their use.

“This stuff is going to be very harmful to our community if it takes hold. If we tolerate any use at a misdemeanor level, it’s going to create a lot of sadness and heartbreak for a lot of people in our community,” he said.

ahannon@durangoherald.com



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