By CBS4 Political Specialist Shaun Boyd

DENVER (CBS4)– The state House has given initial approval to a sweeping bill to deal with the fentanyl crisis. It would make the distribution of even small amounts of fentanyl a felony and require mandatory prison for anyone who sells fentanyl resulting in someone’s death.

(credit: CBS)

The most controversial provision in the bill would make possession alone a felony in some cases.

While lawmakers largely agree on the penalties for dealers, they are divided over where to draw the line on simple possession.

Under the bill, someone caught with 10-40 pills, that are laced with fentanyl, or 1 to 4 grams of powder, that has trace amounts of fentanyl, could be charged with a felony if they knew about the presence of fentanyl. But, it’s estimated 95% of those cases would be pleaded down and if the person completed drug treatment, the charge would be dropped to a misdemeanor and the record would be sealed.

Rep. Terri Carver introduced an amendment to the bill that would make just one pill or one gram of a fentanyl mixture a felony, whether the person knows it’s fentanyl or not, “With a few milligrams – a fraction of a gram – being ingested, people are dropping dead.”

Speaker of the House Alec Garnett, the sponsor of the bill, says the amendment would lead to unintended consequences, “Take the example of a student who has one pill in their pocket and they get caught up in this amendment. So I understand that the debate is passionate on both sides but I want us to not lose the forest through the trees. This is something that is not going to solve the crisis that the state is facing but what is in the underlying bill will go much further.”

(credit: CBS)

Rep. Leslie Herod agreed, “Can’t go to college, can’t graduate high school all because they were given something they didn’t know they had and were poisoned. That’s a problem.”

But Garnett’s co-sponsor, Rep. Mike Lynch, was okay with the amendment, “We have a job to protect the citizens of this state especially when they’re being poisoned and killed. This amendment helps with that.”

Most Republicans supported lowering the amount of a fentanyl mixture that would qualify for a felony but Minority Leader Hugh McKean wanted to keep the provision that lowered the charge to a misdemeanor if the person completed treatment, “What is our intent in approaching the problem we have with this fell poison on our streets? Is it to learn to live with it or is it to get it off our streets?”

Republican Patrick Neville one of the few Republicans to oppose lowering the thresh hold for felony possession, “We’re talking about you’re now a felon. You’re losing your Constitutional rights because you unknowingly possessed something.”

The amendment failed. Democrats also added an amendment to the bill in the Appropriations Committee Friday morning that automatically repeals the new penalties for simple possession in three years. The law would then revert back to misdemeanor charges for anyone with 40 fentanyl-laced pills or 4 grams or less of a fentanyl mixture even though 2 milligrams of fentanyl is fatal.

(credit: CBS)

In addition to increased penalties, the bill also includes millions of dollars for treatment, harm reduction like Narcan – which reverses the effects of fentanyl – and a statewide public awareness campaign.

Shaun Boyd