Tony Exum

What counties do you represent? If this is a statewide office, please put statewide.

El Paso

Have you or someone you loved ever experienced a mental health and/or substance use condition?


Question #1: Colorado, like the rest of the nation, is facing a youth mental health crisis. Do you support school policies and funding that increase the availability of mental health services and supports in schools and early childhood settings?


Would you like to explain your response to question #1?

I’m a member of the House’s Education committee, and we hear all the time about the struggles of students in school, mental health struggles as well as academic struggles. To help address some of these struggles, in 2022 I sponsored HB22-1243, creating a cash fund and appropriating millions of dollars to three programs related to school safety and behavioral mental health: the School Security Disbursement Program, the Temporary Youth Mental Health Services Program, and the Behavioral Health Care Professional Matching Grant Program.

Question #2: Do you believe mental health and substance use are serious issues your constituents are experiencing that deserve legislative attention and action? Please explain.

Yes. People struggle with mental health and substance abuse issues everywhere in Colorado, including in southeast Colorado Springs. Which is why I’ve been glad to sponsor and support dozens of pieces legislation supporting mental health services, including: continuing the regulation of mental health professionals; requiring the Department of Early Childhood to contract with a non-profit to provide mental health services for children; improving the safe2tell program; creating and continuing the mental health criminal justice diversion program; requiring coverage of behavioral, mental health, and substance use disorder services in parity with physical health services provided through private health insurance and Medicaid; and many others.

Question #3: Extreme risk protection orders, also known as red flag laws, allow law enforcement to temporarily remove weapons from individuals at significant risk to themselves or others. Colorado has a red flag law.  Do you support extreme risk protection orders?


Would you like to explain your response to question #3?

I do indeed support the extreme risk protection order (ERPO) as a common sense means of enhancing safety for individuals who may cause harm to themselves or others. In Colorado we have a robust version of ERPO that allows not just law enforcement but families and households to petition for one. I disagree with those who object that petitioners would abuse the ERPO to harass a gun owner. The process requires that the petitioner sign under oath and at the penalty of perjury for a false petition. In its first two years in effect, petitioners requested 255 ERPOs and courts granted 89. This record suggests that the law is working appropriately, judges exercising care in making the decision whether to grant the ERPO. The system works.

Question #4: Overdose deaths are at an all-time high nationally and in Colorado. Many believe increasing criminal penalties for people who use drugs is the answer. Do you support increased criminal penalties for people who use drugs? *
(*Please note that we are asking about personal use, not distribution)      


Would you like to explain your response to question #4?

I disagree with the notion that severely penalizing drug use provides a benefit to society. Substance Use Disorder (SUD) is an illness and the best approach to it is treatment. A person who is in the grip of an SUD is likely not deterred by the risk of criminal penalty, and we do our society no favors by disrupting lives through short term incarceration or, worse, warehousing offenders long term. The best case one might make for such penalties is that they potentially deter people from experimenting with illicit drugs and thereby reduce the risk of addiction or overdose death. Surely for some individuals it works out in just this way. I would suppose that individuals who are susceptible at all to deterrence probably are so generally speaking at lower levels of penalty and that increased level of penalty does not tend to deter any better. A 2016 study in Florida came to just such a conclusion: ***XIV. IMPLICATIONS FOR PROPOSALS TO REDUCE PENALTIES FOR DRUG OFFENSES All of the evidence reviewed above indicates that the proposals contained in Florida SB/ HB 561, as well as the penalty reductions contemplated by the Florida Senate Committee on Criminal Justice (Interim Report 2010-109 and 2012-116) and the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (Report No. 12-02), will reduce the costs of incarceration, save taxpayers money, enhance public safety, without having any measurable impact of the prevalence of drug use and dealing.***

Question # 5: As a follow up question, did you support legislation in the 2022 session that drastically increased the criminal penalty for possession of any substance over 1g if that substance contains any amount of fentanyl?


Would you like to explain your response to question #5?

HB22-1326 has many positive elements, such as the requirement that county jails administer medication-assisted treatment for prisoners convicted of drug offenses. I also appreciate the addition of new funding to promote harm-reduction efforts. What is most objectionable to me is that the law jacks up the penalty for possession of a drug that has been adulterated with fentanyl even when — as is quite common — the possessor may have had no idea about the fentanyl. By all means, let’s crack down on those who manufacture and traffic in these poisons. But to penalize the victims seems wrong from every angle. All of which is to say that while I might have supported this legislation for its positive element, I certainly oppose THIS element and would support revising it in future legislation.

Question #6: Do you believe the State should invest more funding for mental health and substance use? If yes, please explain where you would want additional funding to be directed. If no, please explain why.

Yes, Colorado absolutely should invest more funding to prevent and treat mental health and substance use disorders! Colorado ranks seventh among the states in suicide mortality. Nearly 24 percent of respondents to the Colorado Health Access Survey in 2021 reported that in the previous 30 days they had experienced eight or more days of poor mental health — up from just over 15 percent in 2019 and almost 11 percent in 2013. Asked whether they had gone without needed mental health services at some point in the preceding 12 months, 14.1 percent in 2021 responded in the affirmative, compared with 13.5 percent in 2019 and 7.8 percent in 2013. In 2021 the General Assembly enacted the Behavioral Health Recovery Act (SB21-137), legislation that provides crucial funding for an array of behavioral health uses and lifts sunset provisions under prior law for a set of important behavioral health programs. The fiscal note put total state appropriations for fiscal year 2021-22 at $114,130,227 ($100 million of which comes from ARPA funds) and for fiscal year 2022-23 at $14,267,858. This is a much needed investment that ought to continue. Among the places I would like to see additional investment are: support for in-patient psychiatric care to address an enormous shortfall; an increase in the Medicaid reimbursement rate for treatment of substance use disorder (such a provision had been proposed for HB22-1326); support for Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) for opioid use disorder; and increased support for Community Response Team (CRT) programs to promote a better outcome in instances in which traditional policing is a poor fit for a person in acute behavioral health crisis. I also would like to see renewed support for Mental Health First Aid and Youth Mental Health First Aid. Project AWARE, which had been funded under a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), was an excellent initiative and ought to resume.

Question #7: People needing care, supports, and services for their mental health and substance use often experience discrimination as a result of their health condition. Would you support legislation that would protect people needing care, supports, and services for their mental health and substance use conditions from discriminatory practices?


Would you like to explain your response to question #7?

I stand up for people against discrimination in all contexts and I support legislation to protect against such practices. What is especially pernicious about discrimination toward people on the basis of their behavioral health condition — beyond the cruelty toward the individuals treated in this way — is that it discourages people from acknowledging and addressing their health needs. Stigma associated with behavioral health conditions is an enormous obstacle to treatment and recovery under the best of circumstances. To pile the risk of career and other repercussions on top of that baseline is to compound the suffering not only of those who contend with behavioral health challenges but our entire society. It has to stop.

Question #8: For too long the state’s criminal justice system has acted as a substitute for a comprehensive mental health care system. Would you support policies that would disentangle mental health from the criminal justice system and promote the expansion of programs like Denver’s STAR program?


Would you like to explain your response to question #8?

During my years with the Mental Health Center of Denver (now doing business as WellPower) I gained insight into the co-responder program that has since evolved into Support Team Assisted Response, or STAR. Along with Jay Flynn and Chris Richardson (who bore direct responsibility for it), I had numerous interactions with Regi Huerter of Denver’s Crime Prevention and Control Commission in connection with this great program. As I noted in response to question #6, with reference to Community Response Teams (as they are known in Douglas County), I absolutely support expansion of such programs. Had such a team been in place in Clear Creek County, very likely this past June Christian Glass would NOT have perished at the hands of officers who were ill-prepared to interact with him in his distress. The entanglement of the criminal justice system with mental health goes far beyond how to engage with people in behavioral health crisis. The fact that our jails and prisons serve as de facto in-patient hospitals (without the benefit of adequate treatment) is a scandal. Not only the individuals who are incarcerated but our entire society suffers on account of this waste of lives and misapplication of resources.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

From the very start of my campaign I identified behavioral health — along with wildfire risk, water scarcity and education — as one of my principal public policy concerns. I would very much look forward to working with Mental Health Colorado to make progress in this area.