Colorado Lawmakers Reject Tougher Penalties for Drug Dealers Tied to Fatal Overdoses

Ember Gren first appears to be the ideal supporter of stricter drug restrictions. In 2014, her son Justin DeLong overdosed to death by himself in his apartment in Oregon. A five-year prison term was ultimately imposed on the acquaintance who sold him the heroin.

At Morgan Godvin’s sentencing, Gren spoke instead and pleaded for mercy. Godwin and DeLong both had heroin addictions and as their situations worsened, the distinction between seller and user became more hazy. Gren stated in her testimony before the court that she wanted Godvin and her kid to be treated as human beings.

Gren and Godvin, who were freed from prison in January 2018 after serving more than seven years in prison, remain close. They urged Colorado lawmakers not to increase the criminal punishments for drug dealers whose products cause fatal overdoses on Friday.

“Putting me in prison didn’t prevent anyone’s death then, and passing this law won’t prevent anyone’s death now,” Godvin, who is now a researcher in Portland, said to House lawmakers. “Who will be imprisoned under this law? It’s not truly speculative or debatable. It doesn’t portray drug traffickers as horrible caricatures. It’s individuals like myself.

In agreement, members of the House Judiciary Committee voted 8 to 5 to reject SB23-109. The plan would have included heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, and other illegal narcotics under the scope of a statute passed last year that increased penalties for fentanyl distributors tied to fatalities. In Colorado, selling those narcotics is already a felony offense, but the measure would have increased the severity of the punishment if a user died.

Despite the fact that hundreds of individuals have died from fentanyl overdoses since the statute took effect last summer, data shows that Colorado prosecutors have only sometimes brought such charges against fentanyl distributors under the current law.

Supporters of SB23-109 described it as a necessary weapon to confront Colorado’s ongoing overdose issue and tighten up on drug dealers, including its bipartisan House sponsors Rep. Marc Snyder and Republican Minority Leader Mike Lynch. However, detractors claimed that it would mostly target low-level users who sell in order to fund their addiction and that it would continue the “War on Drugs” strategy, which was first implemented decades ago but has yet to produce results.

These opponents rejoiced Friday when the bill was defeated.

The tweet below confirms the news:

Drug-induced homicide’ laws criticized

Research has shown that drug-induced-homicide laws lead to increased overdoses by driving drug use further underground,” Jake Williams, the executive director of Healthier Colorado, said in a statement. “With deaths reaching an all-time high in recent years, we can — and must — turn the tide on this public health emergency.”

In a separate statement, Michael Fields of the conservative Advance Colorado Institute charged lawmakers with prioritizing “criminals over victims.”

This was a brave, bipartisan bill, he added, “that would have allowed law enforcement to go after dangerous drugs at their source and deter dealers from killing more Coloradans.”

Republican and Democratic lawmakers sponsored the bill. Though it narrowly passed in late March, it nevertheless divided the Democratic caucus in the Senate. One of the few laws to pass either chamber in a legislature controlled by Democrats was SB23-109, which received support from the majority of Republicans.

Critics have frequently cautioned that this would prevent individuals from dialing 911 out of fear of punishment and would result in drug users sharing and users being found guilty. In the Senate, the bill had been altered in an effort to safeguard drug sharers and allay such worries.

Nevertheless, those efforts did nothing to allay oppositional worries that the law would target kingpins rather than low-level distributors and users. While Denver District Attorney Beth McCann and a small number of law enforcement officials spoke in favor of the measure on Friday night, the majority of witnesses opposed it, including doctors and previous users.

The bill, according to Donald Stader, an emergency physician who also leads a nonprofit that distributes naloxone, will result in more arrests of drug users and more jail than treatment.

“I think this will make treatment harder while it makes law enforcement easier,” Stader told lawmakers. “What that will resort in — if it makes enforcement easier but treatment harder — is it results in more deaths. It might result in more incarceration and more deaths, and that’s the wrong direction we want to go to in a public health emergency.”

Colorado Lawmakers Reject Tougher Fentanyl Penalties

The fentanyl debate from the previous year remaining fresh in the minds of Capitol Hill, the bill encountered some resistance in the more liberal House. The legislature’s broader discussion on how to best treat substance use as overdoses rise and fentanyl tightens its grip on the illicit drug market was revived by its difficult journey through the Capitol. On the other side of that debate, HB23-1202, a bill that would have permitted safe drug use places to open in cooperative Colorado municipalities, was defeated in late April.

The law, according to Snyder, a Democrat from Colorado Springs, is critical to confront the overdose issue, especially if new, lethal drugs start to follow in the footsteps of fentanyl and into the country’s drug supply.

He and Lynch, the senior Republican in the House, argued that fentanyl sellers ought to be subject to the same sanctions as dealers of other, potentially lethal substances. They presented the bill as an effort to provide families with justice.

“This is not an attempt to incarcerate folks that don’t deserve to be incarcerated,” Lynch said (in a follow-up statement Saturday, Lynch accused Democrats of supporting the drug trade). “I would like to think that we all agree that somebody who is selling drugs, who is a drug dealer, probably should be held accountable if they cause death to another citizen.”

Opponents, including lawmakers and campaigners, countered that drug dealers have long faced prison sentences.

If the penalties are a good way to stop the flood of drug usage, why aren’t they doing so already? Rep. Judy Amabile, a Democrat from Boulder, enquired. Why isn’t it already working?

If you’re looking for the inside scoop on anything seedy in California and the surrounding areas, go no farther than The California Examiner.

Never look back with regret. There have been some recent shifts in California:

Scroll to Top