By Stephanie Reyes
Over the last decade, fentanyl and related opioids have replaced heroin and meth as primary drugs of concern for Colorado health workers, people who use drugs and their families, and law enforcement. This overdose and fentanyl crisis deserves the immediate attention by our state lawmakers, and we hope they take this opportunity to lead with science and data.
I believe that public health solutions are the best way to help steer Colorado to recovery because I see public health services in action, and how they save lives.
For people living with HIV, the Boulder County AIDS Project is a lifeline to medication support, access to housing, nutritious food, community, and much more. All of the services BCAP offers are evidence-based: They work, and the folks that we serve benefit from this approach. We are accountable to public and private funding, which precludes us from implementing disproven interventions.
Right now, the Colorado Legislature is reviewing the Fentanyl Accountability and Prevention Bill (HB22-1326) in an effort to mitigate Colorado’s overdose crisis. The bill directs funding toward some harm reduction and prevention measures that can save lives – like increased access to overdose-reversing drugs (Narcan), fentanyl testing products and public education campaigns.
However, the good that’s being attempted through this bill still binds access to life-saving services with criminal penalties. Under the current bill, anyone caught with a substance over one gram that contains any amount of fentanyl would face a felony charge.
Such charges significantly and detrimentally affect a person’s ability to obtain and sustain employment, housing and any treatment regiments they may be on. For the people we serve, this could mean going without HIV or hepatitis C medication, which can lead to severe health complications.
Furthermore, this measure shifts even more of the responsibility onto overworked law enforcement to solve a complex public health crisis. We cannot go down the road of failed criminalization policies to fix this crisis. Felony drug charges for simple possession have never worked to reduce drug use, prevent overdose deaths, or get drugs out of our neighborhoods.
HB22-1326 does have provisions in the bill that require forced treatment for substance use. As hopeful as this sounds, without increased funding for Colorado’s overwhelmed mental health and substance use treatment services, the influx of folks will likely end up where the current population already is – on lengthy waitlists and in jail.
Our current infrastructure is profoundly inadequate to meet the need today. This bill makes it worse.
So what is the answer? There is no single answer, and this bill does support some evidenced-based measures that were added through amendments by the House of Representatives.
Most importantly, however, there are guiding principles that we must keep in mind.
First, addiction is not a crime. Moving beyond shame and penalty is the only way to begin healing what is essentially a social disease.
Second, the opposite of addiction is connection. We must work as citizens to tear down the silos of social isolation and reinforce interdependent communities of care.
Lastly, public health experts need to lead the charge to handle this public health crisis.
This bill must provide sufficient, dedicated funding for community-based prevention, treatment and recovery services. In particular, it must fully fund the demand for people who are voluntarily seeking treatment.
The Legislature should reconsider the felonization of simple possession. We know this won’t end the crisis and will very likely increase overdose deaths.
There is still time to fix this bill, and we urge our legislators, especially legislators who serve Boulder County, to support evidence-based, public health solutions.
Stephanie Reyes is a board member for the Boulder County AIDS Project and a Boulder County resident.