Colorado lawmakers defeat bill to tighten criminal penalties on some drug dealers

On the surface, Ember Gren would seem to be the perfect advocate for tougher drug laws. Her son, Justin DeLong, fatally overdosed alone in his Oregon apartment in 2014. The friend who sold him the heroin was later sentenced to five years in prison.

Instead, Gren spoke at Morgan Godvin’s sentencing and asked for leniency. Godvin, like DeLong, was addicted to heroin, and the line between seller and user blurred as their conditions progressed. In her statement to the court, Gren said she wanted Godvin and her son to be considered as human beings.

More than seven years after that hearing, Gren and Godvin — who was released from prison in January 2018 — remain close. On Friday, they asked Colorado lawmakers not to tighten criminal penalties for drug dealers whose substances lead to fatal overdoses.

“Putting me in prison didn’t prevent anyone’s death then, and passing this law won’t prevent anyone’s death now,” Godvin, now a Portland-based researcher, told House lawmakers. “Who will this law put into prison? It’s not really abstract or up for debate. It’s not a cartoonish caricature of evil drug dealers. It’s people like me.”

Legislators on the House Judiciary Committee agreed, and they voted 8-5 to defeat SB23-109. The bill would’ve expanded a law enacted last year, which enhanced penalties for fentanyl dealers linked to deaths, to include heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and other illicit drugs. Selling those drugs is already a felony-level crime in Colorado, but the bill would’ve ratcheted up the extent of those penalties if a user dies.

Data shows that Colorado prosecutors have pursued few such charges against fentanyl dealers under the existing law, although hundreds of residents have died from fentanyl overdoses since the law went into effect last summer.

Supporters of SB23-109 — including its bipartisan House sponsors, Rep. Marc Snyder and Republican Minority Leader Mike Lynch — defended it as a needed tool to address Colorado’s ongoing overdose crisis and further crack down on drug dealers. But critics said it would primarily ensnare low-level users who sell to support their addiction and that it would perpetuate a “War on Drugs” approach that has yet to bear fruit, decades after it was launched.

Those critics celebrated the bill’s defeat Friday.

“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.”

Michael Fields of the conservative Advance Colorado Institute accused lawmakers in a separate statement of putting “criminals over victims.”

“This was a bold, bipartisan bill that would have given law enforcement the ability to attack lethal drugs at their source and discourage dealers from continuing to kill more Coloradans,” he said.

The bill was sponsored by Republican and Democratic lawmakers. But it still split the Democratic caucus in the Senate, which it narrowly cleared in late March. In a Democrat-dominated legislature, SB23-109 was one of the few bills to pass either chamber with a majority of its support coming from Republicans.

Critics repeatedly warned it would deter people from calling 911 for fear of prosecution and would lead to convictions of users who share drugs. The bill had been amended in the Senate in an attempt to protect drug-sharers and ease those concerns.

Still those attempts did little to assuage concerns from opponents that the bill would ensnare only low-level dealers and users, rather than kingpins. While Denver District Attorney Beth McCann and handful of law enforcement representatives testified in favor of the bill, the bulk of testimony Friday night came from opponents, including medical professionals and former users.

Donald Stader, an emergency medicine provider who runs a naloxone distribution nonprofit, said the bill would lead to more arrests of users and would lead to incarceration rather 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.”

In a Capitol still reeling from last year’s fentanyl fight, the bill faced a certain buzz saw in the more progressive House. Its bumpy road through the Capitol resurrected that broader debate within the legislature about how to best address substance use as overdoses increase and fentanyl tightens its grip over the illicit drug supply. It follows on the late April defeat of another bill on the opposite side of that argument: HB23-1202, which would’ve allowed safe drug-use sites to open in willing Colorado municipalities.

Snyder, a Colorado Springs Democrat, defended the bill as necessary to address the overdose crisis, particularly as new, deadly substances follow the path of fentanyl and begin worming their way into the drug supply in other parts of the country.

He and Lynch, the top Republican in the House, said dealers of other, potentially fatal drugs should face the same penalties as fentanyl sellers. They cast the bill as an attempt to bring justice to families.

“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.”

But opponents, both lawmakers and advocates, said that drug dealers already face prison sentences and have for decades.

“Why aren’t those penalties already stemming the tide on drug use, if that is a good tool to stem the tide?” Rep. Judy Amabile, a Boulder Democrat, asked. “How come it’s not working already?”

Stay up-to-date with Colorado Politics by signing up for our weekly newsletter, The Spot.

Source: Read Full Article