DENVER (CBS4)– A sweeping fentanyl bill has passed the state Senate but it looks different than the version that passed the House. Senators added more than 30 amendments, including a controversial one around felony possession. If the House doesn’t agree to the changes, the bill will go to a conference committee where lawmakers either work out the differences or the bill dies.
It has been one of the most emotional bills of the legislative session, with more than 40 hours of debate, 270 proposed amendments, and testimony from 100’s of people including police, prosecutors and parents.
Some of those parents were in the Senate gallery when the bill passed, including moms like Aretta Gallegos, “My daughter passed away from fentanyl poisoning in 2021.”
Gallegos is among dozens of parents who came to the state Capitol day after day to tell their stories in committee hearings.
Matt Riviere lost both of his sons when they took what they thought was Oxycodone but it was poisoned with fentanyl, “I know my boys are looking down and they’re happy that dad is speaking out.”
Coco Peterson says testifying on the bill was her way of putting her healing into action after losing her sister to fentanyl poisoning, “Is it perfect for every one of us? No. But it is an amazing first step.”
For Senator Brittany Pettersen, one of the bill sponsors, it is a step on a seven-year journey.
She has brought bill after bill to address the opioid epidemic, “We are on the third wave of the worst overdose crisis this country has ever seen.”
Pettersen has seen it up close. When she was just 6 years old, her mom became addicted to prescription drugs, then heroin, then fentanyl.
“With nowhere to turn, no treatment available,” said Pettersen.
She says 450 people in Colorado are on a waitlist for treatment now. Pettersen wiped away tears as she pleaded with colleagues to pass a bill that provides tens of millions of dollars for treatment, education and harm reduction.
“I asked people to vote for the bill in honor of the families there, the loved ones they lost, people like my mom who are lucky enough to still be here, and for all the people, we’ll never know their names, whose lives we’ll save by passing this bill.”
The bill is not only focused on those who use drugs but those who sell them. It makes the distribution of any amount of fentanyl a felony and requires mandatory prison if someone dies, depending on the amount sold.
“Someone who deals this drug, and someone dies from it, needs to be held accountable,” said Gallegos.
The most controversial provision in the bill – and one that threatens its survival – makes it a felony to possess one to four grams of a fentanyl mixture, regardless of whether the person knew the mixture had fentanyl or not. The House version required a person to know they had fentanyl in their possession.
The Colorado District Attorneys’ Council, which represents the state’s 22 elected District Attorneys, is worried the House will strip the provision.
Executive Director Tom Raynes said, “If legislators in the House reinstate the highly restrictive burden requiring prosecutors to prove exactly what a drug user thought they were buying or using, the entire purpose of adding the 1-4 gram felony-level possession is eviscerated, leaving users and sellers to brazenly roam our communities with 20-30-40 fentanyl pills – and they will leave bodies in their wake.”
Raynes says anyone with more than one gram is not just using but selling, “Being an addict, while tragic, cannot be allowed as an excuse for a person to avoid felony consequences when they put the lives of others at risk by possessing, trading or selling more than a personal use amount – 1 gram/10 pills is more than a reasonable limit.”
Under the bill, if a person with 1-4 grams completes treatment, the charge would be dropped to a misdemeanor and the person’s record sealed.
The bill also allocates $7 million to help police and prosecutors with the investigations. Peterson wishes her sister’s death had been investigated more, “But I also know that the tools aren’t in place. If there’s not a way to charge people, if they’re too overwhelmed with people’s deaths, they need the tools.”
Riviere says he had never participated in the legislative process until now and has found purpose in his pain, “All us parents here and the ones who have lost people, we’re the voice for those who have gone silent through this crisis.”