Compromise is rarely a good solution to any crisis, and the state’s newly minted law focusing on the raging opioid and fentanyl overdose crisis is a perfect example.
What’s indisputable in Colorado, and across the nation, is that the opioid and fentanyl addiction and overdose crisis continues to worsen, debilitating and killing more people all the time.
The opioid death rate in the United States has exploded since 1990, trebling to an astonishing rate of more than 100 people a day, almost 70,000 people in 2020, according to federal sources.
Just in Colorado, about 1,500 people a year die from these overdoses.
It’s long been a staggering problem inflicted in part by the nation’s own medical and pharmaceutical industries, which overprescribed and under-regulated deadly and viciously addicting painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin for decades.
Opioid addiction, destruction and death have been a national crisis long before the even more potent and addictive fentanyl complicated the calamity.
These drugs are uniquely destructive because of their intensely addictive properties in humans and because of the relentless physical and psychological damage they inflict on the addicts that use them.
Opioid addiction is not a matter of willpower or character. Those who equate this problem to people facing weight loss dilemmas or even alcoholism have no credible concept of the problem, nor the solution.
While almost all substance abuse is linked with lapsing judgment and no appreciation for risk, nothing compares to the sheer force of opioid addiction that obliterates all logical and sensible behavior. Opioid addicts will do virtually anything to satisfy the relentless craving.
For years, lawmakers have seen this and other addictions as nothing more than criminal justice problems, simply because possessing and using most of these substances was illegal.
Years of consistent research has shown that jails and prisons are vastly unable to treat these addiction problems. For a variety of reasons, many addicts even continue to feed their addictions while incarcerated. And even those who don’t often return to drug addiction and substance abuse after their release.
Rather than solve the problem, we have for years spent oceans of tax dollars to run drug addicts through the courts system and then spend upward of $30,000 a year to jail or imprison them, only to release them back to their addiction, and eventual re-incarceration.
Meanwhile, as the addiction worsens, some of these people become real criminals to finance their needs. Many become small-time drug distributors, so they can simply ensure a steady supply of opioids for themselves.
These addicts risk their lives every single day, knowing that each time they shoot-up, snort or ingest whatever they can get their hands on, they risk overdose and death.
It doesn’t stop them. It doesn’t even give them pause.
These addicts lose their friends, their families, their homes and their lives as slaves to their addictions.
The consequence of being charged with a felony rather than a misdemeanor — if they’re caught possessing or using the only thing they care about — does not and will not prevent opioid abuse and deaths.
Despite that, a compromise was struck in the Legislature last month as a measure addressing the crisis was reformed from previous attempts.
The legislative compromise boosts possession of virtually any amount of opioids containing fentanyl, which could be any and all street drugs soon, according to experts, to a felony.
The new law, like the old one, essentially makes suggestions but no guarantees that people caught possessing opioids and fentanyl receive effective treatment.
When it comes to opioid and fentanyl addiction, addicts either stop using and survive or continue using and die of an overdose or some malady or circumstance linked to their addiction.
Creating a sometimes-felony does nothing but complicate the problem and add to the public cost of this crisis.
What House Bill 1326 did right is provide upward of $40 million that can do what making fentanyl possession felonious cannot to mitigate the crisis.
About $6 million for “harm-reduction” programs can go a long way in preventing overdose deaths, but it’s not enough to prevent new addictions and end addiction for those already trapped.
Only about $13 million was set aside specifically for treatment centers and programs to treat addicts into sobriety. That amount will be spread across numerous centers statewide and across dozens of jails.
Given that there are an estimated 43,000 people in Colorado misusing opioids, the need for affordable and accessible treatment will far surpass what lawmakers designated for it.
While putting more resources into preventing truckloads of opioids and especially fentanyl-laced opioids from being delivered to Colorado drug users will help prevent deaths, it won’t stop them.
The so-called War on Drugs was a dismal failure. There’s virtually no nation on the planet that human desire and criminal resources haven’t won out.
Buyers don’t have to take to chat rooms or the streets. Opioids are easily available by mail order through the dark web, police officials report.
Only a massive education and prevention campaign linked to a practical addiction-treatment project will dial back the death count and the lives virtually lost to addiction.
State lawmakers got part of the solution right last month. Officials from Gov. Jared Polis’ office need to ensure data is collected for next year to move another bill toward the right solution, not another compromise.