Guest opinion: It’s time to make fentanyl possession a felony
One of the most heartbreaking challenges we face in law enforcement is having to deliver the news to families that their loved one has died. The screams and tears remain permanently imprinted, and it doesn’t get easier the more we do it. In fact, the reverse is true.
What is worse is when that death was preventable. A major killer that is sweeping this county and the nation is a highly volatile substance called fentanyl. You’ve heard about it, but until you see the lifeless body of a neighbor’s child, or someone from your church or school, or a colleague’s family member, you just don’t understand the grief. It hurts so deep that you never fully recover.
Drug addiction has been around for a long time. Its issues often lead to illegal activity to sustain the “habit.” Families will tell you that theft, physical abuse and other behavioral issues become the norm, making the addict someone totally unrecognizable to those who know and care about them.
Desperation causes major personality changes, and the addict’s brain is chemically altered to the point where their judgment is drastically impaired. Often, this leads to illegal behavior that requires law enforcement intervention, for both the protection of the individual and of the community.
When behavior is influenced by an illegal chemical, and when that chemical is causing unprecedented deaths due to its potency, unlike anything we have dealt with before, we must do all that we can to prevent its spread.
Much has been written about fentanyl lately, and it’s primarily because many of the deaths that have occurred have been by users who had no clue that the substance they were ingesting was spiked with a drug so deadly that just a single grain can kill them instantly. There is no such thing as a fentanyl high, it is a fentanyl death. Your first encounter will likely be your last.
Therefore, it must be treated differently than other illegal drugs. Fentanyl is not like heroin. It can kill at the rate and potency of a chemical weapon. In fact, according to U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn, a barely detectable amount of only 4 grams can kill up to 13,000 people. This is a substance that must be treated very differently than other addictive drugs.
When the size of a grain of salt (2 milligrams) can kill, then we are no longer dealing with an addiction — we are dealing with murder. There are no safe user amounts.
Legal fentanyl, when prescribed by a doctor, is measured by the millionth of a gram (a microgram). An example of how a microgram looks was best described by Dr. Gabor Maté, a retired physician who worked in Vancouver and now lectures on addiction. He describes the perfect example. If a typical Ibuprofen pill is 400 milligrams and you cut that pill into 400 pieces, each piece would be a milligram. To get a microgram, that same pill would have to be cut into 400,000 pieces. 4 grams is not an accidental amount.
Fentanyl is driving the nationwide overdose epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in the 12-month period ending in October 2021, more than 105,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, with 66 percent of those deaths related to synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Last year, the United States suffered more fentanyl-related deaths than gun and auto-related deaths combined.
There are those who have argued that drug addiction should not be a crime, and we agree. The last thing we want to do is to incarcerate a person who is in need of medical treatment. We also agree that any chemical that kills people instantly should be off the street. Too many people are dying. Increasingly, these deaths are of young people, even children.
There is no way that a person carrying 4 grams of fentanyl is doing so for personal use, because only 2 milligrams would have killed them.
Those who distribute this chemical are well aware of its lethal consequences and are directly responsible for their victims’ deaths, yet they consider the risk worth it because fentanyl is hugely profitable, and those lost are easily replaced by others.
Adding complexity to the issue was Colorado’s misguided step to include fentanyl into the class of misdemeanor narcotic criminal conduct. As such, if one is caught with 4 grams of this killer narcotic in Colorado, the penalty only allows for a maximum sentence of less than a year in jail, and no more than a $1,000 fine. With 4 grams having the potential to kill up to 13,000 people, that fine makes each life worth less than the cost of a cup of coffee and a bagel. In addition, as a misdemeanor, the perpetrator is simply given a summons with a promise to appear in a Colorado court, leaving them on the street, to continue endangering lives, distributing this deadly drug, nicknamed “Murder 8.”
Drug Enforcement Agency Administrator Anne Milgram stated: “Fentanyl is killing Americans at an unprecedented rate. Already this year, numerous mass-overdose events have resulted in dozens of deaths. Drug traffickers are driving addiction, and increasing their profits by mixing fentanyl with other illicit drugs. Tragically, many overdose victims have no idea they are ingesting deadly fentanyl until it’s too late.”
Therefore, in protection of those whose addiction is impeding their better judgment, thus exposing them to nearly certain death from fentanyl, and for the overall safety of the entire community, we believe that the harshest of penalties should be imposed on anyone carrying fentanyl in order to make the penalty equal to the severity of the deaths they are directly causing.
While there are many incredibly sad stories across Colorado, there is one in particular that touches the heart of everyone in Eagle County. It’s the story of a local boy who grew up in Eagle and attended high school at Battle Mountain. He played football and excelled academically, so much so that he earned enough credits to enter college as a sophomore. He was a social guy and enjoyed get-togethers with his friends.
He was just 21 credits short of graduating from the University of Colorado when he took a pill last August. It was laced with fentanyl. It killed him. Instead of making plans for a bright future, his mom had to make plans for his funeral.
If the drug dealer is found and they have fentanyl on them, they may simply get a summons. This is how Colorado law views this killer drug and the people who use it to kill others. A powerful video about this is available at HighFiveMedia.org/show/laced-and-lethal-risk-real.
This is not simply a matter of addiction — it is murder on a massive scale, by profit-driven distributors. If it were anything else causing this number of fatalities, the public would be outraged that it could be considered a misdemeanor.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies have made publicly available, detailed information on the fentanyl epidemic and the widespread unmistakable threat it poses. This killer must be placed into the felony-level class due to the high-risk and probability of death that it causes, not just occasionally, but nearly always.
Please contact your Colorado legislative officials and help them to understand the gravity of this situation and its tragic impact on our communities. They are the only ones who can make this change and prevent innocent lives from being lost.
The safety of our communities and specifically, you and your family, are our greatest concerns. Help save a life and prevent another parent from receiving a visit from law enforcement, telling them that the life of their treasured loved one has been lost to fentanyl, and the perpetrator is still out there.
James van Beek is the Eagle County sheriff. Joey Staufer is the chief of police for the town of Eagle. Greg Daly is the chief of police for the town of Avon. Dwight Henninger is the chief of police for the town of Vail. Gregg Knott is the chief of police for the town of Basalt.