Elected Official Update: Fentanyl Must Be Curtailed

Councilwoman Debbie Ortega, at-large

Why must fentanyl possession be treated differently than other substances? It, a synthetic opioid, is 60 times more potent than morphine and 30 times stronger than heroin. It is being laced into other pills, leading to numerous deaths. Today’s meth is chemically different than the drug of the past. It causes severe mental illness that is worsening our homeless crisis. A recent Atlantic article by Sam Quinones quotes Ken Vick, director of a drug treatment center in Kansas City, MO, “I don’t know that I would even call it meth anymore.” Quinones found “Meth overdoses have risen rapidly in recent years, but they are much less common than opioid ODs – you don’t typically overdose and die on meth; you decay.” 

Denverites in 2018 voted to increase the sales tax by .25 percent, ($45 million annually), to bolsters the city’s existing mental-health and substance-abuse treatment options and fund suicide prevention programs. Since Covid, Colorado’s 17 regional community mental health centers struggle to fill vacancies. 

Colorado HB 19-1263 passed in 2019. The penalty for possession of four grams or less of an illegal drug such as Meth, heroin, and fentanyl, was declassified as a misdemeanor. Colorado has seen a significant increase in the presence of and deaths by this highly lethal substance since that time. This HB removed law enforcement from arresting anyone on our streets for possession.  A misdemeanor ticket is not sufficient to motivate someone to enter treatment. According to the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment (DDPHE) between 2020 and 2021, fentanyl-involved deaths increased by 40%, and contributed to almost 50% of accidental drug fatalities in Denver.  This lethal substance has strained local government resources. Penalties for possessing a lethal amount, have been used to get addicted individuals into treatment to thwart their addiction to fentanyl. Providers aren’t adequately staffed to offset its presence on our streets and its impact on community. A middle ground to the state legislation could be to replicate programs like Denver DA’s Drug Court, that works like a deferred program to sentencing.  

CO Attorney General, Phil Wiser joined a national lawsuit for Colorado cities and counties against Johnson & Johnson and three of the largest drug distribution companies that created the national opioid addiction crisis. In July 2021, Colorado, and other states succeeded.  The National Opioid Settlement Fund will contribute $385 Million for Colorado and $39 Million for Denver. Johnson and Johnson funds will be paid over nine years with a majority expected in the first three years. The drug distributors will pay over 18 years. Denver’s Opioid Abatement Council will determine how the dollars flow.  I am committed to ensuring that the funds have a meaningful and lasting benefit to addicted individuals and to our community. 

Fentanyl received a lot of attention since the beginning of the 2022 Legislative session with the introduction of bill HB 22-1326. Public and private sector entities have weighed in on solutions to save lives and improve the safety of our city. 

To create safer streets, eliminate homelessness, and improve overall mental wellness we must act differently on fentanyl. I applaud Governor Polis efforts to provide treatment facilities that focus on rehabilitation for addicted individuals.  These individuals must be choosing recovery support. Priority will be given to those at higher risk of homelessness, substance abuse, and who are frequently using public systems. 

CO Senate and House are working on HB 22-1326, with amendments to increase the penalties for possession of 1 gram or more. Homeless substance users can receive the help they need with a safe place to stay. For community members who are unwilling to seek help, to recover from addiction, they may eventually receive services and access to resources through the justice system.

Without the balanced efforts of HB 22-1326, many people will be continue living on the streets, struggle to obtain services and assistance, because fentanyl laced products will continue to kill and cause people to decay. To begin to address this issue, we must institute stronger penalties for fentanyl distribution of lethal quantities and provide treatment services.  Assisting addicted neighbors with successful programs is the only road to break out of a cycle of addiction and homelessness. 

Councilwoman Deborah Ortega is one of two at-large members of the Denver City Council. She was elected to office in 2011 and re-elected in 2015 and 2019.

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