The treatment was not working. Could jail save Colorado woman from fentanyl?

The coming months would bring progress and healing, but also struggles and setbacks. In March, Allison died of an overdose.

His death came just as Colorado lawmakers began debating a new approach to criminal drugs. Now the state is about to increase the criminal penalty for possession of small amounts of fentanyl to a felony. The change has been one of the most debated ideas in the Legislative Assembly this year – with experts, advocates and lawmakers all deeply divided on whether this approach will help or hurt people like Allison.

Those who loved her and tried to save her end up with different answers.

A “good life” felt at your fingertips

The Monarch Residence in Lakewood is easy to miss – a stone-fronted, albeit unusually grand, suburban McMansion. Inside, it’s packed with homey touches, like the “Home Sweet Home” sign and a basement movie theater. At any time, it is occupied by a dozen women in convalescence and two staffers.

During those first few weeks, Allison worked hard for the program – constantly attending meetings and making connections. She stayed sober for a month, then two. She got a car and worked in a nursing home and as a waitress.

Courtesy of the family
Allison, a mother in her 30s, had suffered from mental illness and addiction for years.

“I thought if she could keep what drove her in those first 30 days, she could do some really big things: stay clean and sober and help a lot of people,” Kimbel said.

Allison was fortunate to have access to residential services, which often have long waiting lists and simply don’t exist in many rural areas. Treatment and recovery centers, almost everyone agrees, should be the first line of defense against addiction.

But recovery is a fragile thing. Cali Peterson is co-owner of Monarch Sober Living — and, as an opiate addict, she started noticing changes in Allison after a few months.

“I could definitely see it coming, and it’s so frustrating in those times,” she said.

The relapse appeared to have been triggered by the onset of an unrelated medical condition in late January. Allison had an episode of Bell’s palsy, a sudden onset of facial paralysis that can temporarily alter someone’s appearance, similar to a stroke.

For someone with addiction, Peterson said, this kind of change can be unsettling: “We’re already shy about everything and overthinking, and all of these emotions are so overwhelming.”

Allison was taking a drug called Suboxone, which reduces cravings and can even reverse some of the effects of other opiates. But Peterson and Kimbel suspect that when Allison started using again, the fentanyl she took was strong enough to overwhelm the drug.

Megan Verlee/CPR News
Posters showing how to use NARCAN Nasal Spray in an overdose emergency at the Monarch Sober Living Home in Lakewood on May 6, 2022.

The young woman was in a phase of critical danger, because people who relapse after a period of sobriety no longer have the same tolerance as before. And fentanyl pills can be especially deadly because the dosage is unpredictable and the drug is deadly in small amounts.

Allison began trying to avoid drug tests, then overdosed in a Costco bathroom – and was soon asked to leave the house so her use wouldn’t endanger others’ sobriety women.

“You just want to shake them up,” Peterson said. “You have this beautiful life waiting for you, and since you can’t see it, it’s there, you know?” But you’re so stuck in there.

Peterson worked with Allison’s mother to get her back to rehab, but Allison apparently decided not to go. She returned to the residence, uninvited, at the end of January. The staff wouldn’t let her in, but soon after they realized her car was still in the driveway. She was in the vehicle, overdosed.

“She was unconscious. She was gray. She wasn’t breathing very well,” Kimbel recalled.

Staff grabbed doses of Narcan from the house and within minutes had Allison resuscitated.

Is prison still the solution?

Peterson was not at the scene, but she was on the phone, urging others to get the police involved.

“Tell them she needs to be stopped,” she recalled saying. “Because at this point it was three overdoses in a week. She wasn’t ready to go to rehab. In my mind, I thought the best way to get her vaccinated was to go sit in jail for a while and sober up.

This moment exemplifies the debate lawmakers and others have had over this question: Are police and prosecutors ever the best option for helping people whose crime is essentially addiction?

Peterson thought prison was Allison’s best chance to survive and have a chance to get back on the path to recovery. In fact, years earlier, Peterson herself had gotten sober on the floor of a prison in another state.

“Maybe that would scare her enough and wake her up enough,” she said.

The state’s proposed bill would allow police and prosecutors to deal more harshly with fentanyl possession cases, potentially including Allison’s.

Under current Colorado law, anyone caught with less than 4 grams, or about 40 pills, can only be charged with a misdemeanor unless they are suspected of drug trafficking.

But the near-completed bill would lower the limits, allowing felony charges for nothing more than one gram of any fentanyl-containing substance. It does not go as far as many Republicans and a few Democrats would like; they pushed for “zero tolerance” crimes for any possession of fentanyl.

State Rep. Leslie Herod, left, and House Speaker Alec Garnett during a floor debate on efforts to overhaul state laws regarding the possession and distribution of fentanyl on Friday April 22, 2022.

Proponents of tougher penalties, including Peterson, argue that it’s not about punishing people with addictions, but that arrest and the threat of a felony charge are sometimes necessary to bring people like Allison to seek treatment. Under the bill, some people could reduce their criminal penalties if they complete their treatment.

On the day of the overdose, Allison had a few pills on her and syringes with an unknown substance, according to Kimbel; the exact amounts are unclear. The police offered her an option: she could go to jail or she could go to the hospital.

“She chose to go to the hospital, so they wouldn’t arrest her,” Peterson said.

A police report confirms that Allison was taken to hospital, but officers wrote that they did not know who the fentanyl belonged to. It does not describe the hospital or prison offer.

Allison’s Last Days

Allison continued to seek treatment after her hospitalization, but her willingness to participate came in fits and starts, as can often happen for people struggling with addiction.

A few days after the overdose in the driveway, she called Peterson and told him about grand plans to leave Colorado and start a new life. The escape speech set off more alarm bells.

“And that’s when I remember calling her mom and saying, ‘She’s going to die,'” Peterson said.

Megan Verlee/CPR News
Claire Kimbel (left) and Cali Peterson at Monarch Sober Living Home in Lakewood on May 6, 2022.

Peterson and Allison’s mother continued to search for anywhere that could keep her in treatment. They found a place in a 30-day inpatient program, Peterson said — a near miracle given Colorado’s shortage of residential treatment beds. She was still resistant.

“When you see the willpower going away, it’s just that the addiction has taken over them,” Peterson said.

Allison’s mother is an elected judge in another state – and then she went to court in Colorado. She had her daughter involuntarily committed by court order to drug treatment. It seemed like the only way to bring her back to her senses.

But even that was not enough. Once again, Allison left treatment and returned to the Monarch residence.

“She just went into a hug and broke down crying, and feeling devastated and asking for help,” Kimbel said.

Staff called 911, hoping someone would enforce the court order and get Allison back for treatment. Kimbel remembers telling a dispatcher that Allison would die if she left the house. But, according to Kimbel, dispatchers said they did not have access to court documents and could not act on them.

Eventually, Allison left the house.

A few days later, she suffered an overdose that would kill her.

What would the new legislation change?

Allison was one of hundreds of people who will die from fentanyl overdoses in Colorado this year. Over the past few weeks, lawmakers have heard from many people left behind — grieving friends, siblings and relatives.

Several parents have testified before lawmakers that they “would rather have a criminal than a dead child”, saying they believed the fear of criminal consequences might have helped their loved one. Law enforcement officials said the ability to assign crimes would allow them to target lower-level drug traffickers and also give users a greater push toward treatment.

Peterson agrees: After being arrested for heroin possession, she also faced multiple felony charges in Arizona and Ohio. But she got sober, which resulted in the charges being dismissed in one state and reduced to a single misdemeanor in another.

“I had two options,” Peterson said — jail or a new life.

Fake oxycodone tablets containing fentayl collected during an investigation.

Colorado’s new bill will give people a similar option to reduce a felony possession conviction to a misdemeanor. But others said a harsh criminal response would only have ostracized their loved ones.

“If my son had been told that, if he was felonious, he would have been broken. And (we) would have been deprived of two years of love for and from him in our lives,” James O’Connor, a public defender who lost his son Seamus, told a committee hearing.

Crimes can have lifelong consequences. Even when they don’t lead to jail time or convictions, they can hurt people’s careers, tear families apart and drive drug users further into despair. Peterson acknowledges that her own criminal charges derailed her hopes of working as a nurse. She also benefited from the fact that her family hired a lawyer.

“It completely changes the trajectory of your life. You always have that hanging over your head, you know. It never goes away,” Peterson said.

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