By Jack Lowenstein

(CBS4) — We have been reporting for months about the issue of fentanyl in Colorado. State lawmakers are working on a bill to fight it as the number of state deaths continue to increase daily due to the substance.

This bill would have stronger penalties for those distributing fentanyl, including dealers linked to an overdose death. Also, there would be millions of dollars available for treatment and prevention.

NARCAN nasal spray (credit: CBS)

The bill would also increase access to resources such as fentanyl test strips and Narcan, a prescription medicine used for the treatment of a known or suspected opioid overdose.

This comes after five people died after inhaling cocaine-laced fentanyl in Commerce City in February.

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In December 2021, a teenage girl in Colorado Springs had a fentanyl overdose in class.

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State Rep. Leslie Herod is among a group of Colorado lawmakers that will introduce the bill aimed at combating a growing a public crisis.

“We are partnering a public safety approach with a public health approach,” Herod said. “People were dying from poisoning; people are dying from poisoning of fentanyl, and we have to address it.”

In January, Colorado Health Institute updated its report, “A Parallel Epidemic: More Overdose Deaths in 2020, Fentanyl Fatalities Spike,” which was originally publish in October 2021. The report highlights changes in overdose rates in Colorado.

Included in its key takeaways was the finding there was a 54% rise in fentanyl overdoses in Colorado in 2020, which accounted for nearly 2 in 3 overdose deaths in the state. In 2020, 1,477 Coloradans died of drug overdoses – the most overdose deaths ever recorded in the state, and a 38% increase from 2019 according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

According to the report, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the impacts of the rising rate of substance use and on access to treatment and support options.

Under the expected bill, penalties for those in possession of fentanyl would stay the same. This comes from a change in the law in 2019 that lowered possession of 4 grams of fentanyl from a felony to a misdemeanor.

RELATED: Colorado Lawmakers Set To Introduce Bill To Combat Fentanyl Crisis

Gov. Jared Polis, Speaker Alec Garnett, a bipartisan group of state legislators, district attorneys and community members were scheduled Thursday to discuss the new legislation to prevent fentanyl deaths and save lives during a press conference at 10:30 a.m. at the Colorado State Capitol.

“My office is seeing an alarming increase in case filings involving fentanyl. In 2019, we filed 87 cases and in 2020 that number rose to 133 only to more than double in 2021 with 340 cases filed. The increased penalties for dealers and the distribution-resulting-in death provisions of this bill will empower state prosecutors with statutory tools similar to that of our federal colleagues so that we have stronger laws to help us address this scourge by holding dealers to higher criminal standards,” said Denver District Attorney Beth McCann. “Fentanyl is poisoning too many people and causing an increase in other crimes here in Denver, throughout Colorado and nationally, which is why I am so supportive of this legislation. The goal is to hold those who peddle this poison accountable while also ensuring those who are overdosing can get help without fear of repercussion. The bill is a nice blend of increased criminal tools and funding for education, treatment, and provision of Narcan and fentanyl test strips. Fentanyl use presents multifaceted issues and needs to be addressed on many levels. This bill is a great step forward in this fight.”

Not everyone supports the bill as it written though. Law Enforcement groups including the Colorado Drug Investigators Association, The County Sheriffs of Colorado, the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police and the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police released statements Thursday saying the bill doesn’t go far enough.

They want to do away with the 2019 law that prevents them from charging anyone with less than 4 grams of fentanyl with a felony.

“If we have the ability to have felony charges held over somebody’s head it allows us the opportunity to do investigations to get to the head of the snake,” said Arapahoe County Sherriff Tyler Brown.

He is hopeful that makers will be willing to work with law enforcement to amend the bill in a way that can help everyone.

Jack Lowenstein