Politics

Inside the Tricky Politics of Fentanyl in Colorado

A photo of fentanyl tablets as seen on the Drug Enforcement Administration's "Facts About Fentanyl" page.
A photo of fentanyl tablets as seen on the Drug Enforcement Administration's "Facts About Fentanyl" page. dea.gov
On March 14, Republican Tyler Allcorn, a former Green Beret who's running for U.S. Representative in Colorado's new 8th Congressional District, challenged Democratic rival Yadira Caraveo to three debates about fentanyl. As a member of the Colorado Legislature, Caraveo voted to reduce the penalty for possessing four grams or less of the synthetic drug back in 2019, years prior to politicians on both sides of the aisle becoming hyper-focused on the synthetic drug as a key factor in the state's ongoing overdose crisis.

Allcorn clearly believes Caraveo's record on fentanyl is an area of vulnerability. "Law enforcement officials across Colorado agree that Yadira Caraveo’s 2019 law to decriminalize fentanyl is causing people to die from overdoses and needs to be reversed, but she still won’t even admit the vote was a mistake or commit to reversing that deadly law," he says in a statement announcing the challenge. "The fentanyl epidemic plaguing our state has been made even worse because Democrats like Yadira Caraveo and Joe Biden refuse to support securing our southern border to reduce the flow of drugs like fentanyl into our communities."

Caraveo, a doctor by training, responded to Allcorn's attacks in the Greeley Tribune. "As a pediatrician, I treat kids who come from families with histories of addiction, kids whose lives have been altered from the impact of drug use," she stated. "As a physician and a legislator, my priority is to make sure that people who struggle with addiction have the resources to get the help they need while making sure law enforcement has the resources they need to hold those who distribute addictive substances accountable — not to play politics in the hopes of becoming the next member of Lauren Boebert’s Q-Anon Crowd in Congress."

This back-and-forth suggests that Republican hopefuls will put the 2019 fentanyl vote front and center in the 2022 campaign. But the situation is trickier than that.

Turns out that HB19-1263 dealt with plenty of other substances beyond fentanyl, and was backed by a considerable number of Republicans. Moreover, proposals to deal with the rise in fentanyl deaths are currently under consideration by a bipartisan team of legislators, and they may choose to adopt a law enforcement approach in part to blunt the very sort of criticism Allcorn is hoping to use to his advantage.

Westword recently published a three-part series on fentanyl: "Fentanyl and Other Drugs Killing the Most Coloradans," "Why Denver Heroin Users Are Switching to Fentanyl," and "Synthetic Drugs More Powerful Than Fentanyl Coming to Denver, Expert Predicts." In the posts, Lisa Raville, executive director of the Harm Reduction Action Center, whose mission is to "educate, empower and advocate for the health and dignity of Denver's people who inject drugs," argued passionately against trying to solve the fentanyl problem by way of a draconian crackdown.

"Law enforcement can't arrest their way out of this, or they would have done it a long time ago," she said in explaining why she favors addressing addiction with public-health policies as opposed to harsher punishment.

That was the idea behind HB19-1263, whose summary notes that, with a few exceptions, it "makes possession of 4 grams or less of a controlled substance listed in schedule I or II a level 1 drug misdemeanor" — a crime punishable by "up to 180 days in the county jail or 2 years probation, with up to 180 days in jail as a condition of, or for a violation of, probation." In addition, "the community substance use and mental health services grant program is established in the department of local affairs to provide grants to counties that provide substance use or mental health treatment services to, facilitate diversion programs for, or develop other strategies to reduce jail and prison bed use by persons who come into contact with the criminal justice system. A county is eligible to receive a grant if it provides such treatment services and programs in collaboration with public health agencies, law enforcement agencies, and community-based organizations."

The bill's sponsors included two Democrats, Representative Leslie Herod and Senator Pete Lee, and two Republicans, Representative Shane Sandridge and Senator Vicki Marble — the latter among the most conservative (and sometimes divisive) members of the body. The final vote in the House on May 3, 2019, was 43-20, with four Republicans (Sandridge, Rod Bockenfeld, Janice Rich and Susan Beckman, who resigned in 2020) going with the majority. As for the state Senate, which included fifteen Republicans at the time, the vote for re-passage was unanimous, with four excused absences.

With so many Republicans on the record as supporting HB19-1263, the odds of a legislative overcorrection regarding fentanyl are high, particularly given the steady flow of fentanyl-related news. Note that in the weeks after the deaths of five people in the same Commerce City house after they consumed fentanyl-laced cocaine, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Colorado announced that Grand Junction resident Christopher Huggett, thirty, had been sentenced to fourteen years in federal prison for the distribution of fentanyl resulting in death.

Click to read HB19-1263.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts