When lawmakers passed a lengthy bill last year to tighten criminal penalties for fentanyl users and dealers, they simultaneously undermined the state’s immunity protections for drug users who try to save people from overdoses.
That loophole was closed Monday, when Gov. Jared Polis signed HB23-1167 into law. The measure expands criminal immunity protections to more substance users who try to stop overdoses as part of the state’s broader efforts to address its ongoing drug crisis, which killed more than 1,650 residents last year.
“It’s going to save lives,” said Rep. Chris deGruy Kennedy, a Lakewood Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill. “It’s an important step to make sure that people who are struggling with addiction know that if they’re around a person who is facing an overdose, the only thing they have to worry about is saving that person’s life.”
Under the state’s Good Samaritan law, a person who calls 911 and cooperates with authorities to stop another person’s overdose qualifies for immunity from prosecution for drug possession. But lawmakers changed the state’s drug laws last year, making it easier to charge fentanyl users with felony-level possession. That, in turn, weakened the state’s Good Samaritan law for people using the most potent drug on the market, one that’s killed thousands of Coloradans in the past several years. Advocates warned that fewer people would call 911 as a result.
HB23-1167 adjusts the Good Samaritan law to include the new fentanyl possession charge, and it also covers people who are sharing substances. That better reflects the reality of drug use, advocates said: People frequently share drugs, and the threat of a drug distribution charge can curb life-saving 911 calls.
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The bill also gives people charged with dealing small quantities of drugs a path to reduce their criminal penalties to a misdemeanor, should they call 911 and cooperate with law enforcement.
Advocates cheered the bill’s passage into law Monday. Lisa Raville, who runs Denver’s Harm Reduction Action Center, said the fentanyl bill last year “eroded” the state’s decade-old immunity protections.
“It’s a really important piece of the puzzle in the overdose crisis,” said Taylor Pendergrass, the advocacy director for the ACLU of Colorado. “Nothing is a magic bullet in the face of what’s unprecedented, but this is a huge step in the right direction by expanding the Good Samaritan law.”
The bill was part of some Democrats’ attempts to align the state’s response to overdoses with a harm reductionist approach. Another piece of the project, a measure that would’ve allowed safe-drug use sites to open in willing municipalities, died in a Senate committee in late April.
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