PERRY: The deadly fentanyl crisis is real, the jail-everybody demand is just a political delusion

This Jan. 31, 2019 file photo shows a display of fentanyl and meth that was seized by Customs and Border Protection officers over the weekend at the Nogales Port of Entry at a press conference in Nogales, Ariz. (Mamta Popat/Arizona Daily Star via AP, File)

No matter how badly some local and state lawmakers wish it were true, we can’t just legislate, arrest and jail our way out of the state’s deadly fentanyl and opioid crisis.

Everyone wishes it was as easy as the partisan tantrums in Aurora and all over Colorado were making it sound.

It’s not, and falling for the partisan election-year ruse is dangerous.

Everyone agrees that the latest evolution of the nation’s opioid addiction debacle is terrifying. Not only have we created a shadow nation of people addicted to opioids like heroin and prescription painkillers, black-market criminals have worsened the crisis by, literally, adding bootleg fentanyl into the mix.

Fentanyl from a pharmaceutical company is a synthetic opioid created to be a painkiller that packs a huge punch of mind-numbing action. It’s stunningly strong, estimated to be about 50 times more powerful than heroin.

And because of that strength, it becomes that much more attractive to — and dangerous in the hands of — illicit manufacturers and recreational drug users. As the demand for the drug increased among street-drug users, criminal chemists have changed the game by substituting or adding bootleg fentanyl to sham pills that look like favorite black-market opioids, such as “vikes” “percs” or “ox’s.”

The problem is, they now can contain deadly amounts of bootleg fentanyl, sometimes in some tablets but not others because of shoddy, clandestine production.

And so what many people believe are just the same old Vicodin and Oxycodone pills they’ve bought illegally before from other users, chat-room sellers and more, are actually poison.

It’s not as if Colorado, and the nation, hasn’t lost generations of lives to drug addiction before now.

The nation loses about 100,000 people each year to drug addiction and overdose, a number that rises every year. Almost 300 Americans die every day from drug addiction and overdose. The vast majority of those deaths are opioid related. Last year, about 700 people in Colorado died from fentanyl overdose, according to U.S. health officials.

And along with the yearly increases in drug deaths, Congress, state legislatures, district attorneys, jail and prison officials have ratcheted up the penalties and prosecutions for those who make, distribute and use the drugs that kill so many people.

The result of decades of “just say no” and get tough on drug user laws? More addiction. More distribution. More arrests. More incarcerations. More use. More deaths.

It doesn’t matter how badly some people want to believe that we can scare or jail people into avoiding a death date with street drugs, they do it anyway.

Think about it. If someone is willing to take a chance on having their party drug knock them dead in seconds, do you really think the vague chance of an arrest is going to impact their decision to roll the dice with a couple of vikes?

No. Tough arrest threats have never worked, and they won’t work now.

The worst states for drug use, addiction and deaths include Florida, West Virginia and Ohio — all conservative, Republican strongholds fast to impose the full extent of the law against those caught with illicit drugs. Also high on the list? Blue states, like Delaware and Connecticut.

The clear takeaway? Prosecuting drug users does not keep people from doing drugs.

In fact, what it provably does is turn illicit and troubled drug users and addicts into felons, who then must battle not only addiction for the rest of their lives, but also suffer criminal records that can destroy their futures. Criminal records often lead to or contribute to — wait for it — drug addiction and substance abuse.

It’s pretty common for people who understand the clear and undeniable danger of doing any street drug, especially now when it’s nearly impossible to know which pill or snort will have a salt-grain sized flake of fentanyl, enough to kill a healthy person.

We’re all asking, why would anyone do such an illogical thing?

It’s really, really complicated. It’s even more complicated than trying to figure out why anyone with even a modicum of education and consciousness would believe that Donald Trump won the 2020 election, that taking a COVID-19 vaccine would make metal objects stick to your forehead or that Robert Kennedy Jr. is undead and trolling Texans.

But there are thousands of people who wrongfully think they can dodge the deadly fentanyl bullet, or that Tina Peters is telling the truth and would make a fine Colorado secretary of state.

So rather than round up drug users, imprison them at the taxpayer cost of bazillions each year to completely ruin the lives of dabblers and addicts, Colorado made a bipartisan effort a couple of years ago to bring drug users, not peddlers, into the misdemeanor court system and push them into treatment instead of prison.

With the pandemic and so many other crises across the country, it’s too soon to tell how much a difference this will make.

But because the fentanyl debacle stands out even among the catastrophic opioid crisis, something more has to be done.

So a handful of Republicans and most Democrats at the State Capitol agreed that, since fentanyl is so deadly, professional peddlers must face increased penalties.

Absolutely, use every resource to seek out the makers and distributors of these illicit and deadly street drugs, some of the world’s most ruthless criminals. House Bill 1326 does that.

But what they’ve also agreed on is that people who often don’t even know that the oxy’s they got from a co-worker or a cousin contain a possibly deadly amount of fentanyl. Treating these people like the thug that carries around baggies of pills and hands them out of his or her car window with all the blithe demeanor of a food delivery service makes no sense, no matter how hard people wish it did. 

Hopefully, the campaign at the state Capitol that includes a huge effort to tell people how dangerous and capricious the street-drug they use is, and ways for users to test the drugs they insist on using, will save lives.

But I can guarantee you that herds of people will believe whatever Fox News, Tucker Carlson and Vladimir Putin say about bioweapons labs in Ukraine, and herds of people will keep buying blues, shards and other street drugs, thinking it’ll all be OK.

Republicans like gubernatorial candidate Heidi Ganahl and current Arapahoe County DA John Kellner, who’s running for state attorney general, have fired endless partisan missiles at Polis and Democrats in this latest war on deadly drugs. They’re demanding a return to sentencing guidelines that sound so good but have provably over many decades done nothing to reduce drug use or save lives.

“This bill fails to fully address the crisis we’re in. The smallest amount of this drug is powerful enough to kill and this bill does not do enough to confront that reality,” Kellner said.

I agree with him there, and so do state lawmakers like Denver state Rep. Leslie Herod.

No bill can do enough. We cannot arrest our way out of the fentanyl and opioid crisis. We can’t jail our way out of it. We can’t wish it away. We can’t just legislate it away.

As painful as it is, we have to be realistic about the scope of the problem, the persistence of the problem and our failure to solve the problem. And we have to try something different. 

That’s the reality we face. 

Follow @EditorDavePerry on Twitter and Facebook or reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected]

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Debra MacKillop
Debra MacKillop
3 months ago

Sociologists have studied the impact of punishment on stopping offenses, recidivism, and general (in the community) and specific (the specific offender him or herself) deterrence, both with punishment of fines, jails and capital punishment. If you went to college, you studied this. General and specific deterrence does not work and makes things worse for offenses like drugs, or involving mental health or poverty or homelessness or similar problems, and what does work is tackling those specific problems in the community and helping the specific individual with the problem (in this case drug addiction). But we humans always seem to want to punish, we always move toward it, even when we know on some level that it will not help and make things worse, and the less informed we are (and conservatives in this case very uninformed), the more we choose the simple but totally ineffective, cruel and useless approach – like fines and jail with a drug addiction (and help them lose their job too if they have one and fall deeper into debt and hurt their family, etc). WHEN WILL WE LEARN.

Joe Felice
Joe Felice
3 months ago

You are correct, but this requires thought and effort, not to mention money. It’s easier for spoiled and impetuous people to complain and lay blame. We know the problems are societal and the solutions begin much earlier that the manifestation of the problems. I like to say “We need to dig deeper.”

3 months ago
Reply to  Joe Felice

You say “spoiled and impetuous people” complain and lay blame. You are misinformed. The majority of people that demand safe and clean cities are hard-working parents who get their children dressed, feed, and to school on time. These same people then make sure that they have their own work clothes clean and ready and gas in their car before leaving for an 8 hour shift where they will labor to provide products and services that the public needs. And these would be the same citizens that pay city taxes and fines and fees. They are law abiding. They participate in church, school, and volunteer organizations.
It is important to remember who government has an obligation to protect and help.

3 months ago

We should not really be extending too much sympathy towards people who overdose while voluntarily using street drugs. Instead we should very much worry and try to protect the innocent children neglected by drug-using parents. We should be livid about crazed meth drivers killing and maiming innocent people on our roads. We should be angry about the rising cost of healthcare caused by the slow destruction of addicts’ heart, kidneys, digestive track, liver, brain, and more. Society should absolutely address the emotional turmoil and actual costs that comes from being a victim of an addict’s carjackings, thievery, and property damage.

Joe Felice
Joe Felice
3 months ago
Reply to  BlueBird

As a compassionate society, which we used to be, we should be concerned for all who are impacted.

3 months ago
Reply to  BlueBird

The healthcare cost is indeed high, but pales in comparison to what is spent as a result of gun violence, with close to 40,000 deaths and 60,000 maimings a year.

Joe Felice
Joe Felice
3 months ago

Jail everyone, including the homeless. We have room, right?

2 months ago

One thought that is true about this drug problem that can’t be refuted:
Whatever we have been doing for the last few years is not working.

Maybe we should do something really dramatic, whatever that may be.

Maybe like they did in the orient, “Opium Dens”. Now Fentanyl Dens. Put them with the new Homeless Dens, if you wish or anywhere, maybe close to the morgue; give them very low cost fentanyl for free and allow them to take as much as they want. Won’t take very long to solve the problem. Have the sociologists study that idea.