Written by Sarah Diem, Colorado State Policy Intern and Chapter Leader of University of Colorado Denver Students for Sensible Drug Policy
On March 16, 2016, House Bill 16-1344 was introduced to the Colorado House of Representatives. This new bill proposes the creation of a “special offender category” to be applied to drug suppliers of an illicit substance to an individual that died as a result of use. The enacting of this bill and the enforcement of the new sentencing could leave suppliers facing a level one felony that carries a maximum sentence of up to 32 years in prison. The bill also calls for the appropriation of five years worth of money to cover the net increase in expenses that would result from the high likelihood of increased sentence lengths if this bill were to pass. This legislation is misguided and problematic in many ways but most importantly it holds no potential to decrease or prevent overdose deaths, reinforces criminalization over rehabilitation, and will result in even more money spent by taxpayers to fuel the War on Drugs.
House Bill 16-1344 is completely arbitrary legislation. In Colorado, there are currently two categories that may apply to suppliers in the event an individual overdoses on the product they provided; reckless manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. Both of these categories are felonies that carry level four and five penalties which already present up to three or six years sentencing; however the creation of this new streamlined sentencing would place the individual under penalties of a much harsher level one felony. Designing this sentencing only reinforces the idea of being “tough on drugs” and that criminalization is the answer to solving overdose and drug use, which hasn’t decreased in the nearly 40 years we’ve been battling this “War on Drugs”.
This new law also poses issues regarding intent and whether or not the individual overdosed on more than one substance. Polysubstance dependence is on the rise, and the risk of overdose involving the use of multiple substances is much higher than one alone. In the event an individual overdoses and there is more than one substance involved, charging the dealer of one particular substance with being solely responsible for the other individual’s death is both illogical and unjust.
In addition to the issues of increasing criminalization around drug-related events, this new legislation would be extremely costly for Colorado taxpayers. Colorado residents already spend $37,000 per inmate annually. A five-year allocation of resources to sustain an overall increase in costs due to an anticipated increase in arrests and sentencing will only divert more money towards dealing with overdose and prevention in a criminal manner, not a rehabilitative one. Potential money spent in maintaining this legislation could be redirected or better invested in harm reduction services and preventative programs as opposed to creating new punishment for a drug-related offense.
Overall, this bill will not reduce overdoses or encourage calling for help as individuals may be more hesitant to put themselves or someone they know in the way of these severe charges. Additionally, creating new criminal legislation around overdose events adds to the stigma that being involved in drug use is immoral and criminal and will only further drive the community of those involved with substance use into the shadows. Use and arrests rates have been shown to fall after legislation geared away from criminal sanctions is passed, however, the legislation we are facing does not and will not have the potential to create a positive impact on the health and safety of drug users. If the Colorado Legislature truly has an interest in the peace, health, and safety of the public they will not pass this legislation, and instead, make an effort to invest in more substantial and effective harm reduction measures.
If you are a Colorado resident, please take a moment and tell your Representatives to oppose this harmful bill using the SSDP Action Center.