Before I reached Colorado House Speaker Alec Garnett the other day, I had been warned that he seemed especially tired and maybe more than a little stressed.
That was hardly a surprise. It’s the time of year — the final few weeks of the legislative session — when stress is pretty much universal at the state Capitol. And, anyway, I could guess what was bringing him down, and it wasn’t that this would be his last few weeks as speaker.
When I got him, Garnett did surprise me. He told me he is going to retire from politics once the session is over and that he’s counting the days. He’s term-limited, but he’s only 39. When I asked if this retirement was definite, he changed the odds slightly — to 99% sure. But I could see why.
In reading the front-page headlines, it looked as if during an election year, Democrats were caving on a critical part of Garnett’s bill addressing the fentanyl crisis in Colorado, which is not unlike the fentanyl crisis facing states across the country.
In this case, the bill would make “knowingly” holding anything more than a single gram of fentanyl a felony — down from the old law that required four grams. In other words, possession of one milligram more than one gram, whether or not there was any provable intent to distribute, would be a felony. The “knowingly” part is a nod to the fact that fentanyl is often used in mixing with other drugs without the buyer’s knowledge.
The old law, passed in 2019 regulating fentanyl and other such drugs, was put in place in order to treat drug addiction as a health crisis rather than a criminal one. I mean, if there’s one thing we’ve learned — or should have learned — in the never-ending battle with illicit drugs, it’s that you can’t jail your way out of the problem any more than you can just-say-no your way out.
Now, it looks as if, in the face of a fentanyl crisis, we’re moving backwards, which is what can happen, especially in an election year, especially when Republicans want to place the blame on Joe Biden and his so-called Open Borders policy at the southern border for allowing the powerful synthetic opioid to flood the nation’s streets, leaving a plague of often unwitting deaths by overdose in its wake.
According to the state health department, more than 900 Coloradans died from fentanyl overdoses last year, which is an unhealthy rise from already-quite-high 540 the previous year. And the numbers get even uglier. Four deaths among children 10 and under in 2021 and 35 for those between 10 and 18.
I don’t see where this new bill particularly protects children, who have no idea what they’re ingesting, but the crisis is real enough. The reaction to it, though, is standard politics for our time. There are, of course, no open borders with Mexico, which doesn’t mean it’s not a major Republican theme — xenophobes unite, you have nothing to lose but your country — as we head toward November’s critical midterm elections. The drug can be made anywhere, and cheaply, but the two biggest suppliers are Mexico and China, two ready-made-for-election villains.
And yet Garnett said, “This is not political, at least not for me,” knowing full well that everything these days is political.
“I’ve got just 28 days,” he explained the other day, “until the end of my political career. I’m counting them down. This is the only bill I’m running at this point. And it’s a bill that will please almost no one because such a bill doesn’t exist and because there’s no silver bullet that would solve this problem.”
The crazy thing is, when Garnett says it’s not political for him, I find myself almost believing it. He says it’s the only bill he’s pursuing now, which addiction-treatment people believe is too tough and most of those in law enforcement believe is not tough enough. It looks like a lose-lose proposition for Garnett.
When Garnett says he’s retiring from politics — after eight years in the House, where he’s term-limited — I’m sure he means it now. He may be term limited in the House, but every other elective office is open to him should he change his mind.
When I give him a chance to further explain, he says, “OK, let’s call it 99% sure. Who knows what happens down the line? It’s definitely the end of my career as a legislator. Things have changed so much in the eight years since I first got into office. We don’t know how to disagree any more. It used to be that my phone number and address were public, and people would come sit on my front porch to tell me they disagreed with me and would vote for someone else.
“But we could at least talk and maybe change some minds. Now, because of death threats I’ve received, I have state troopers on my front porch.”
There has been talk about Garnett possibly running for mayor next year to succeed Michael Hancock, who will then be term limited.
“There’s a lot of chatter about me doing something after this, like mayor, but I highly doubt it,” Garnett said. “My thought process is I can’t be the dad I want to be for my three young kids and the mayor Denver needs.”
So if this is Garnett’s last rodeo, he admits he picked a tough bull to ride home.
“I don’t want to refelonize fentanyl possession,” he said. “But when you’re talking about fentanyl, one gram is actually a lot. Two milligrams of fentanyl mixed in with another drug, so you don’t even know you’re taking it, can be fatal.
“Look at the rest of the bill,” he says, “and see what we’re doing.” Or at least how Garnett expects the bill to look when it finishes making its way through the legislature and on to Jared Polis’ desk.
In the bill, you don’t go to jail if you’re caught with one to four grams unless there’s proof of intent to distribute. You do go to drug court, where they presumably understand dealing with addiction. You do have to go through two years of supervised release, which presumably includes rehab and an educational process. If you don’t reoffend in two years, the felony record is sealed.
In the bill, there is money to buy and distribute Narcan, which is an antidote for opioid overdose. There is money for test strips, which could tell you if fentanyl had been mixed with the drug you purchased. Five people died from an overdose in Commerce City this year when they apparently thought they were ingesting cocaine. There’s money for treatment in jail and money for treatment afterwards.
But the bill, as it is now, barely passed out of the Judiciary Committee, where an amendment that would have made any amount of fentanyl a felony lost by a single vote, with one Democrat — a prosecutor in his day job — joining four Republicans.
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Many of the people who are using it — particularly young people — are dying because they have no idea that fentanyl is involved. Lacing, I’m told, gives a higher high, but also a shorter-lasting high, which is one way that addictions are made.
Were also told that fentanyl is 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin, 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. So it’s easy enough to see the problem.
Garnett tells me he has spent more than 200 hours working on this bill. He says he has no lobbyists on his side to help him get it passed. But he’s right that something must be done. He wants to sunset the new part of the law that changes the felony rules to see if they can stand up to scrutiny as actually helping. I know I have my doubts.
But maybe this is why Garnett is all but certain he’ll retire. He’s trying to pass a bill that, at once, significantly lowers the standard for making fentanyl possession a felony while also advocating against the basic principle of refelonizing drugs. It’s a tough argument to make.
No wonder it could be his last one.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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