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Our View: Talk of decriminalized fentanyl vote not true

A large part of our work is sorting through election noise and getting to the truth. Here’s what we confirmed. Possessing or using fentanyl is absolutely a crime. Always has been. There was never a vote to decriminalize it. Period.

Let’s go back in time to 2019 with state House Bill 19-1263, which had bipartisan support. Lawmakers did the research, engaged district attorneys, physicians, social workers, addicts, parents – anyone touched by fentanyl – to get under the hood of the tragedy. Go after the dealers was the sentiment.

Here’s what came about: Possession of 4 grams or more became a Level 4 drug felony. Less than 4 grams was a Level 2 drug misdemeanor.

This change and its penalties meant, ideally, offenders would land in local jails rather than prisons. Offenders were then more likely to be closer to their support systems.

Fast forward to 2022, when the reach of fentanyl was heartbreakingly more prevalent. More and more users unknowingly ingested fentanyl. And they died. HB 22-1326 lowered the amount from 4 grams to 1 gram to become a felony with increased penalties.

Separately, an amendment was introduced to make any amount more than zero a felony. This did not pass.

From the perspective of urban representatives, substantially more users would catch felony records, and decrease their chances for rehabilitation and success. The climb back to health, jobs, schools and, generally, being functional citizens would be more treacherous.

Something else. If users could prove in court they unknowingly possessed fentanyl, offenses could be reduced.

The bill had its flaws. But it was the filtered product of both rural and urban bipartisan lawmakers, trying to get it right.

Now, in the throes of election season, the untruth that any lawmaker voted to decriminalize fentanyl is just that. This misinformation detracts from real work done to bring treatment to the Southwest.

And there is progress.

The SouthWest Opioid Response District, a diverse group from service providers to elected officials to those with lived experiences, won’t accept that we can’t have better treatment here. And they’re strategizing.

SWORD will help coordinate a feasibility study on what to do with $150,000 of congressionally directed spending received by Region 9 Economic Development District, the group’s facilitator. Step-down programs, such a sober living facility for patients after completing a 30-day treatment program elsewhere, are of particular interest as is more intensive treatment. Whatever manifests, it has to be unique to Southwest residents.

Also, La Plata County is green-lit to receive an additional $1.825 million, likely seed money for a regional treatment center. Who knows, it might turn out as a remodeled DeNier center.

And thanks to Attorney General Phil Weiser, our region will receive between $200,000 to $250,000 a year for 18 years from the first round of opioid settlements. That feasibility study will determine the best use of these dollars.

People rolling up their sleeves get the urgency of this work. They’re not spreading falsehoods.

“Our regional partners, nonprofits, people with lived experiences are really stepping up efforts that will help people,” said Marsha Porter-Norton, La Plata County commissioner. “What motivates us are the needs we hear about and see all the time.

“It’s time that we lead, and determine how and if we can bring more intensive substance abuse treatment services to people closer to where they live.”

In 2021 in La Plata County alone, 22 people died from substance abuse, nine from overdoses.

And first things first. Talk of a vote to decriminalize fentanyl is simply not true. Don’t believe it.