This year, we asked 100 Denverites about their top concerns in the upcoming midterm elections. The issues that rose to the top: Crime, education, the environment, trust in government and, important for this article, public health. Here’s what you need to know about where health and wellness shows up on your Nov. 8th ballot.
For full descriptions and arguments for and against these measures, check out your blue book.
When COVID-19 shut down schools, it also severed access to free breakfast and lunch programs that a lot of Denver children rely on. The federal government stepped in with money to keep those meals coming, which expanded coverage to any kid – not just those whose families are considered low-income.
That federal funding expired in 2022, and some state lawmakers raised the possibility of using state money to ensure all students have access to free meals in perpetuity. Their bill was never introduced, and became Proposition FF.
A yes on FF raises taxes on households that make more than $300,000 per year to pay for grants that schools can use to buy locally sourced food, increase pay for workers who work in school cafeterias and create parent and student advisory committees who will make sure menus are up to snuff. Those taxes would begin in 2023.
Schools will also be required to participate in federal programs to get the most federal cash available for meals. The Colorado Department of Education would also be required to report on the program every two years, to make sure things are on track.
Proponents say free meals are crucial now, as inflated housing and grocery costs hammer families. They also argue kids need to eat to participate better in class, and making free meals available to everyone eliminates a “stigma” attached to a program that would otherwise be designated for low-income families.
Opponents argue higher taxes will be onerous for households making more than $300,000 a year in a time when the cost of living is inflated, and that the state shouldn’t buy meals for families who can afford to do it.
There were two proposed ballot measures on psychedelics, but only one made the ballot. The one that didn’t pass Go would have decriminalized psilocybin, psilocyn, ibogaine, mescaline and DMT.
How it would work
Proposition 122, which will be on the ballot, (1) decriminalizes the use, cultivation, possession and gifting of magic mushrooms, dimethyltryptamine, ibogaine, and mescaline, (2) allows for licensed facilities where psychedelics can be used under supervision and (3) lets local governments set operating rules for those facilities and their own penalties for use and possession by people under 21 years old. It would also not allow local governments to all-out ban these facilities in their jurisdictions.
Here’s who’s for it and against it
Proponents argue psychedelic substances are important tools to help people deal with PTSD and severe depression, and say the FDA has found psilocybin mushrooms can be better at treating depression than existing therapies. They also say arresting people for using psychedelics means taxpayers will spend more than they should on the state’s criminal justice system.
Opponents say this measure “forces” governments to allow use of drugs that have been illegal for decades, under “the guise of health care.” They say psilocybin mushrooms haven’t been proven to be safe, and that no federal agency has earmarked DMT, ibogaine, or mescaline as “breakthrough” therapies.
Gov. Jared Polis, the Democrat who’s running for re-election, touts a handful of health-related policy achievements on his campaign website.
Perhaps the most controversial of these bullet points is a bill he signed this year that lowered the amount of fentanyl someone needs to get caught with to be charged with a felony, from four grams down to one. The law also allows people to get out of felony convictions if they complete court-ordered treatment, funds more treatment and offers recovery programs in jail. But some pogressive politicians and activists have decried the measure as dangerous, claiming it sent Colorado back to a “war on drugs” mindset.
Polis’ website also mentions a law passed this year that funds mental health care as an intervention to help people before they might fall into contact with the criminal justice system, and a study funded by his Department of Human Services’ Office of Behavioral Health that showed Colorado’s co-responder programs – which send medical and mental health experts instead of police to certain emergencies – was successful in de-escalating situations and helped people in crisis get help without going to jail.
Polis also signed a bill that enshrined abortion access into law, which was passed along strict party lines.
Meanwhile, a scandal impacted Polis’ first term when allegations emerged that Colorado’s air pollution managers were rubber-stamping pollution permits to speed development and avoid creating a paper trail, in the event environmentalists sued the state. Polis also threatened to sue the EPA over its downgrading of Colorado’s ozone status, which will require reformulated gasoline to be sold in the state, and the feds denied his request to be let off the hook.
Heidi Ganahl, Polis’ Republican challenger, lambasts the governor on her campaign website when it comes to health and safety. In particular, she’s pledging to make possession of any amount of fentanyl a felony, though there’s a bullet point on her website that says she’d also “create statewide care courts to shore up drug rehabilitation vs. incarceration.”
“Let’s address addiction with compassion for all involved, including more access to care but with consequences for criminal behavior,” her site reads, and her platform generally pushes a crackdown on crime and a “return to law and order.”
Her site says she’ll shift the state’s mental healthcare into “outcome-based funding models” and use “emergency authority” to increase capacity at treatment centers, both in terms of available spots and workers to staff them.
Ganahl also says she opposes Colorado’s recent abortion law, and says she’s “pro-life with exceptions for the rare and terrible instances of rape, incest, and the health and life of the mother and child.”
Outside of these issues, Ganahl doesn’t have much else on her website that speaks explicitly to health and wellness, though she has pledged to renovate a whole lot of roadways, which environmental and transportation advocates say is not the way to go.
Incumbent Democrat Sen. Michael Bennet‘s campaign website touts bipartisan work to lower healthcare costs and end “surprise emergency medical bills” at the federal level. He says he’s also pushing to cap insulin costs to $35 a month, a measure that was taken out of a big budget measure passed in August, and codify abortion access in federal law, though that will be a virtually impossible sell without significantly more Democrats in the Senate.
Bennet also says he’d like to pass legislation to plug “orphan wells” releasing methane and other chemicals into air and water.
Joe O’Dea, Bennet’s GOP challenger, walks a couple of tight lines in the language when it comes to health issues.
For instance, his website says he’s pushing for more oil and gas development to “restore America’s energy dominance,” but he says he’d like to see it done with “tougher, smarter regulations” to keep that development “clean.”
Also, his campaign materials suggest he “supports a woman’s right to choose” an abortion and has said he would not pursue an abortion ban in Colorado if elected, though he has supported strict abortion rules in the past.
Incumbent Democrat Phil Weiser‘s website lists a platform of environmental priorities, which touts work to hold car companies accountable for air pollution, a push to increase penalties for companies that deliberately pollute Colorado’s air and water and the creation of a “environmental crimes unit” in his office. If reelected, he says he’ll work next on water access issues, especially in relation to the Colorado River Compact.
Weiser’s website also touts his role in securing settlements with companies he’s said are liable for the nation’s opioid crisis.
John Kellner, Weiser’s GOP opponent, says he’ll crack down on opioid users, ensuring “victims and law-abiding citizens are prioritized over offenders,” and challenge the federal government on immigration policy to stop “fentanyl flowing across the southern border.” While details on his website are scant, it generally advocates for stronger police departments and tougher penalties for people who break the law.