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In first six months in Congress, Pettersen seeks to spread opioid policies shaped in Colorado

Denver Post

  • Then-state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, left, and her mother Stacy pose for a picture at their Lakewood home

Original Article Here

The newly minted congresswoman has targeted Medicaid and treatment reforms.

In one of her first major speeches since she arrived in Congress, U.S. Rep. Brittany Pettersen stood before the House and talked about her mom.

“Like so many Americans, my mom has struggled with an opioid addiction,” Pettersen, a former state senator who now represents central Colorado, told her colleagues in May. “When I was just 6 years old, she hurt her back, and she came home with bottles and bottles of opioids.”

The House was debating a bill to permanently reclassify fentanyl, the synthetic opioid that’s cornered the drug market and sent overdose rates skyrocketing, as a schedule one substance. That designation would place it in the highest tier of banned substances in the United States, a proposal sponsored by Republicans and supported by the Biden White House.

Pettersen, who as a Colorado legislator had spent years working on substance use policy here, had concerns. The bill included mandatory-minimum sentencing provisions that she opposed. She would also later tell the Denver Post that reclassifying fentanyl would mean a de facto reclassification of other illicit substances, given that fentanyl is now frequently mixed in with meth, heroin, cocaine and other drugs.

As she had in Colorado, Pettersen sought to ground her position in her own history. Fentanyl emerged in the Colorado drug supply in 2016. Her mother — who had moved from pills to heroin — overdosed 20 times that year, Pettersen said, and jail wouldn’t have helped.

“I absolutely want the person who was my mom’s dealer, who would show up to the hospital and put heroin mixed with fentanyl in her IV — I want that person to go to jail for a very long time,” Pettersen told the House. But, she added: “If my mom had a mandatory jail sentence, that would have been a death sentence for her and for far too many people out there.”

The bill passed, without an amendment from Pettersen that would’ve required a certification that the measure would’ve stopped overdoses. Still, the speech served as a window into Pettersen’s approach to drug policy, honed in Colorado, grounded in her own personal history and now rolling out in Congress.

In her first six months, she’s sponsored or signed on to more than a half-dozen bills focused on drug policy, ranging from improving naloxone access in schools and airplanes to enhancing border screenings. Another measure would study regulating peer-to-peer tech services — like Venmo — that can be used in drug transactions. She’s co-sponsoring another bill that would ease access to methadone, a tightly controlled but effective medication used in treating opioid addiction.

Her now national focus on the issue comes as Colorado and the rest of the country continue to struggle against the dominance of fentanyl in the nation’s drug supply. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly 110,000 Americans fatally overdosed in 2022. More than two-thirds of those deaths were caused by opioids, primarily fentanyl, per the CDC. The crisis has quickly morphed into a political issue: Fentanyl was a frequent conservative attack line during last year’s election, and the Republican National Committee has already begun issuing statements knocking Pettersen’s fellow freshman, Democratic U.S. Rep. Yadira Caraveo, for previous votes on substance use.

Caraveo, whose newly created seat will be tightly contested in 2024, was the only Colorado Democrat to vote yes on the fentanyl reclassification bill that Pettersen opposed.

While Pettersen has continued to embrace drug policy on the federal level, she’s leery of the more contentious proposals: Though she supported the Colorado fentanyl bill that increased criminal penalties for possession, Pettersen told the Post this week that throwing “everybody in jail … is not the solution.”

Gov. Jared Polis signed HB22-1326 on ...

Then-state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, center right, stands alongside other politicians as Gov. Jared Polis signs HB22-1326 on the Capitol steps in Denver on May 25, 2022. The legislation is intended to combat fentanyl, which killed more than 900 people in Colorado in 2021. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

But she was also skeptical, Pettersen said, of pursuing supervised drug-use sites, a key objective of harm reduction advocates and many public health officials (and one shot down by Colorado legislators earlier this year).

Advocates say the facilities give communities another tool to address the crisis and that they can keep people alive until they get help. But Pettersen said the policy has become too politicized and doesn’t hold the same promise as other reforms, like improving treatment access, that may be sidetracked by more divisive policy debates.

“We lose so many people (politically), and it’s weaponized politically, and it stigmatizes people even more,” Pettersen said of the debate around safe-use sites, during a Monday interview in her Lakewood office. Despite her preference for other approaches, one of the federal bills she’s co-sponsoring would study the handful of sites available in the U.S. “So in the long term, we save more lives by, I believe, focusing on all of the other things.”

She’s instead working on other bills, some of which have roots in Colorado. One would allow hospitals to bill Medicaid or private insurers for naloxone — the opioid overdose antidote — that the hospitals give to patients before they leave, expanding on an amendment Pettersen helped shepherd into Colorado law in 2022. It would cover hospital costs and encourage direct distribution of the antidote to patients, rather than giving them prescriptions that experts say are rarely filled.

She’s similarly hoping to allow states to expand Medicaid to cover inpatient substance use treatment, with the federal government picking up nearly all of the tab in the first five years before dipping down to 80%. Colorado began covering that treatment in 2021, in a bid to bolster access for lower-income people struggling with substance use.

Brittany Pettersen speaks during an Election Night party at the Art Hotel in Denver on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. As a U.S. representative from Colorado, Pettersen has made issues around opioid addiction, law enforcement and treatment center to legislative agenda. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

She said she’s requested a meeting with Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to discuss the proposal.

That dynamic — Republicans in control of the chamber — represents a barrier against Pettersen’s efforts to expand on her Colorado reforms. For much of her time in the state legislature, Democrats enjoyed a majority in the Capitol, even if she was able to secure bipartisan support.

That’s not the case anymore, just as substance use — and communities’ response to it — is becoming increasingly politicized. Cutting through partisan roadblocks, Pettersen said, is a combination of humanizing the crisis’ impact — that’s where the speech about her mom comes in — while finding the policies and lawmakers who want to tackle the core issues.

“The things that are easy to say and simple to understand on some of the most urgent issues are just so misguided, but get the headlines,” Pettersen said. “It’s easy to bring fear and that’s where we get, unfortunately, too much attention.”