The fentanyl crisis continues to cause unfathomable loss, most recently with the tragic death of five people in Commerce City earlier last week. Amid so much pain, we have a responsibility to meet this moment by embracing bold, proven and life-saving public safety solutions. Now is the moment when we must also put to bed, forever, decades of failed policies that led to this unprecedented crisis. It is far past time for Colorado lawmakers to take aggressive action to protect Coloradans and save lives.
For over 50 years, the U.S. had only one answer to the question of how to save lives and reduce harm from drug use: punishment and prison. The result of this horrifying experiment is a mountain of evidence showing “the overall effect of imprisonment is null.” Prison sentences do not improve safety. They do not save lives. They do not help people recover from substance use disorder. They do not keep us safe from or reduce the supply of dangerous drugs, or save lives in the event of an overdose.
Here is the cold hard truth — we could increase prison sentences 10-fold, cut them by half, then triple them, and all those changes would do absolutely nothing to protect our families and loved ones from future fentanyl tragedies.
Examining the research is hardly necessary for most American families. They know all too well from their experience with a family member, friend, or even their own lived experience, that locking someone up with a substance use disorder will not provide them with the resources and treatment they need. Locking people up only wreaks tremendous intergenerational costs that perpetuate a never-ending cycle of harm to families and children.
Unfortunately, some Colorado lawmakers appear to have no solutions at all, offering only stale and reheated War on Drugs leftovers. At best, increasing prison sentences for drug-related offenses will have no impact whatsoever on this crisis. At worst, and far more likely, it will stigmatize people who need treatment, exacerbate racial injustice, and squander valuable resources. That money could be better spent on healthcare, education, and affordable housing to begin addressing the root causes of the overdose epidemic.
We are thinking far too small for this enormous crisis when we are tinkering at the margins of our mass incarceration architecture. It is also a colossal waste of time when lawmakers should be laser-focused on rapidly scaling up evidence-based solutions that have proven effective at saving lives: overdose prevention centers, fentanyl test strips, safe supply, drug decriminalization, public education campaigns, and low-barrier access to naloxone and other rehabilitative and life-saving therapies.
Voters of all stripes agree “the war on drugs has failed,” — Democrats (83%), Independents (85%) and Republicans (82%). Voters also know that there is nothing more “soft on crime” than politicians who are too scared to act decisively and aggressively to prevent death and harm from happening in the first place.
Lawmakers who claim failed approaches that haven’t worked for the last 50 years are now suddenly going to succeed are displaying a very dangerous mix of willful ignorance, magical thinking, and political expediency. If they have no real solutions to offer, they should step aside and let lawmakers with a real vision and commitment to keeping Colorado families safe lead the way. We can and must meet this moment.
Taylor Pendergrass is the Director of Advocacy and Strategic Alliances for the ACLU of Colorado. As a veteran strategist, civil rights attorney and former ACLU national Deputy Director of Campaigns, Pendergrass has spent more than 15 years fighting for transformative social change, racial justice and equality.