By CBS4 Political Specialist Shaun Boyd

(CBS4) – Dozens of parents gave agonizing testimony at the Colorado State Capitol Tuesday as lawmakers took up a sweeping bill aimed at addressing the fentanyl crisis.

Since 2019, deadly fentanyl overdoses in Colorado have jumped 260%. One of the cases that pushed the emergency into the spotlight was in Commerce City. Five people died in one apartment when they used what they thought was cocaine. It turned out to be pure fentanyl.

More than 150 people showed up to testify on the bill, including police, prosecutors, public defenders and medical providers.

Parents whose kids were killed by the synthetic opiate begged lawmakers to take action.

“I literally feel a like piece of my soul has been ripped from me,” said Tesa Alirez when she described losing her daughter.

Matt Riviere said he had barely heard of fentanyl until his sons died.

“I lost my only two sons to fentanyl poisoning,” he said.

Matt Taylor told lawmakers his son bought fentanyl on Snapchat. He says he held his son as the life slipped out of him.

“I kept my hand on his chest until his heart stopped beating,” he said.

“The day Alex’s heart stopped, mine broke,” said mom Lindsey Taylor.

Parents said their child was poisoned with fentanyl and prosecutors could do little to hold the killer responsible.

“These are murders happening with no investigations,” said Riviere.

The bill by Colorado House Speaker Alec Garnett and state Rep. Mike Lynch is aimed at changing that. It makes distribution of even small amounts of fentanyl a felony whether the person knows its fentanyl or not and requires mandatory prison for distribution resulting in death, depending on the amount of fentanyl sold. District attorneys testified that the bill doesn’t go far enough.

“A life is a life, and it shouldn’t be tied any way to the amount of fentanyl that is distributed,” said 18th Judicial District Attorney John Kellner.

But medical providers and public defenders said the bill goes too far.

“Incarceration and felonies don’t prevent overdoses,” said one opponent who said the money should instead be diverted to treatment.

Dr. Josh Barocas, an Infectious Disease Physician at CU Medical School agreed.

“Strong scientific evidence supports that criminalization simply doesn’t work,” he said.

Barocas says the bill will have the opposite effect of saving lives. He says people who don’t receive treatment in prison will come out and overdose.

The most contested provision in the bill is around possession, not distribution.

“Because this drug is so lethal, we must use every tool at our disposal to get it off the streets,” said 17th Judicial District Attorney Brian Mason, who is leading the Commerce City investigation.

Under the bill, possession of 4 grams or less of fentanyl remains a misdemeanor. Two milligrams is deadly.

Some prosecutors argued possession of even trace amounts should be a felony.

“We simply cannot go on treating fentanyl — this deadly poison — the same as, frankly, a shoplifting ticket,” said Kellner.

Phil Cherner with the Colorado Defense Bar argued against charging users with felonies, saying it doesn’t deter someone who has a substance use disorder.

“You’re telling someone that’s already risking their (life) by taking a drug that they may in fact be looking at another few months in jail.”

He says many people don’t know the drug they’re taking is fentanyl, which is found everything from cocaine to pills sold as Oxycodone.

“How do you deter someone from committing a crime they don’t know they’re committing?” asked Cherner.

An impasse over the possession issue could kill the bill.

Boulder District Attorney Michael Dougherty says there is an urgency to the bill’s passage.

“If this bill dies, people will continue to die at a tragic and alarming rate,” he said.

Lowering the amount of fentanyl that triggers a felony is among the amendments that lawmakers will consider and it could cost sponsors the support of some Democrats.

But if they don’t lower the felony possession amount, the bill will almost certainly fail.

Republican leader of the House Hugh McKean says if the amendment passes, there will be enough Republicans supporting the bill to ensure its passage out of the House.

“A solution to how to get this killer poison off our streets is a top priority. In our talks with the Democrats we have been clear about what real solutions look like,” he said.

First, it has to get out of committee. The hearing lasted into the early morning hours Wednesday.

Shaun Boyd