Local law enforcement responding to rise of fentanyl – The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel

A straw, residue covered foil and a bag of fentanyl pills are photographed at the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office.
An investigator at the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office holds a fentanyl pill recovered in an investigation at the sheriff’s office.
An investigator at the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office dumps fentanyl pills recovered in an investigation onto the table at the sheriff’s office.
Photos by MCKENZIE LANGE/The Daily Sentinel
Evidence in fentanyl-related investigations is shown at the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office.

A straw, residue covered foil and a bag of fentanyl pills are photographed at the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office.
An investigator at the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office holds a fentanyl pill recovered in an investigation at the sheriff’s office.
An investigator at the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office dumps fentanyl pills recovered in an investigation onto the table at the sheriff’s office.
Photos by MCKENZIE LANGE/The Daily Sentinel
Evidence in fentanyl-related investigations is shown at the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office.
When Mesa County Sheriff’s Office investigator Erik Olson first joined the department, methamphetamine was the most dangerous drug on the streets.
Now, however, it feels like meth is being usurped as the main problem drug in the county by fentanyl, according to Olson, who works on the Western Colorado Drug Task Force.
The task force was formed in 1998 as a collaboration between the Sheriff’s Office and the Grand Junction Police Department to investigate the illegal distribution of illicit drugs.
Recently, it has had to tweak some of its methods to account for the danger posed by fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 100 times more powerful than morphine.
Illicit fentanyl is primarily manufactured in foreign labs and smuggled into the U.S. through Mexico, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency. It’s often mixed into other drugs to increase the potency and poses a lethal danger to the public because a dose of 2 milligrams can kill a person.
“That stuff is incredibly deadly,” Olson said.
Justin Bynum, a sergeant with the Sheriff’s Office who runs the task force, said the task force is primarily concerned with catching the people who are importing fentanyl into Mesa County and distributing it to users, rather than charging and incarcerating the users themselves.
“I don’t care to put the users in jail,” Bynum said. “I don’t care. I would love for them to give us information so we can find the dealers, then put them in jail.”
The task force wants to follow the chain of possession from the users back to the distributors, investigator Nikki Briggs said.
This can be tricky, though, Bynum said, because fentanyl users are generally opioid addicts, and rely on their dealers to get them drugs to ward off the effects of withdrawals, which make them sick.
This makes fentanyl users less willing to give up information on their dealers, because they don’t want to cut off their supply, Bynum explained.
“They’d rather get their own family in trouble than give up their dealer,” Bynum said.
Although fentanyl is often mixed with another drug such as heroin to increase that drug’s potency, Bynum said the task force is running into a lot of people who are seeking out fentanyl on purpose because it’s easier to get than heroin or prescription opioids.
Fentanyl users aren’t confined to one demographic either, Olson said. They occupy the whole scope.
One way the task force approaches fentanyl differently than other drugs is task force investigators try to respond to the scene of every overdose call to try to get information about the dealers, Bynum said.
This helps investigators obtain more information than they were able to before, Bynum said, because now they’re getting first-hand information instead of second- or third-hand information.
Briggs said they try to educate patrol deputies to recognize fentanyl and its paraphernalia, such as tinfoil “straws” that are used to smoke fentanyl, and call the task force to respond.
All Mesa County Sheriff’s Office patrol deputies now also carry Narcan, an opiate blocker that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.
Bynum noted if someone receives Narcan, they still need to seek medical treatment because the effects of Narcan may wear off before the opiate is out of the person’s system, and they can still overdose.
“It does save lives, but it’s just a temporary block,” Bynum said.
If a person dies from a fentanyl overdose, according to Bynum, the task force approaches that investigation similarly to a homicide investigation, slowing the process down and taking necessary precautions.
Another way fentanyl has changed how law enforcement operates is in the way evidence is handled.
At one time, officers used chemical reagent testing at scenes to test suspected drugs, but that practice ended because of the danger fentanyl could pose if it gets in the air or contacts the skin, Bynum said.
Now, Bynum said, officers collect samples at the scene and send them to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation’s lab to be tested.
Officers also use a device called “TruNarc” that uses light to scan drugs and can bring back presumptive positive tests, although the drugs still need to be tested by the lab to be completely certain.
Also, according to Megan Terlecky, a Sheriff’s Office spokesperson, fentanyl can’t be destroyed in the department’s incinerator because it’s too dangerous if it gets in the air.
Yet another problem is that fentanyl pills aren’t regulated, so no one knows how much is in each pill, Bynum said.
A person can take one pill and be fine and take another the next day and be dead instantly, Terlecky said.
“It’s roulette,” Bynum said. “They take it and don’t wake up.”
Terlecky noted that residents can turn in fentanyl pills to law enforcement without fear of being prosecuted.
According to the DEA, doses within pills have ranged from .02 milligrams to 5.1 milligrams, which would be more than twice as much as it can take to kill a person.
It’s hard to recognize when a person has been taking fentanyl, Bynum said, because oftentimes they just pass out.
“They’re out cold. They’re sleeping,” he said.
Steps also have been taken to combat the fentanyl issue once a case is handed off from law enforcement to prosecutors.
“On December 16, 2021, DEA announced a drug enforcement surge to help combat fentanyl distribution and we’re appreciative of federal law enforcement and prosecution assistance in addressing drug crime related to fentanyl as federal legislation presently makes the prosecution of distribution resulting in death much simpler than under the state’s current legislation,” said Jennifer Springer, 21st Judicial District chief deputy district attorney.
State lawmakers are mulling a change to a law passed in 2019 making possession of up to 4 grams of an illegal drug a misdemeanor to account for the danger posed by fentanyl.
“The DA’s Office supports legislative changes that recognize deadly- distribution quantities of fentanyl weigh significantly less than distribution quantities of other controlled substances, and are supportive of legislative changes that allow for increased penalties for drug dealers distributing fentanyl in our community,” Springer said. “We’re seeing a sharp increase in overdose deaths related to fentanyl. Legislation that enables my office to hold accountable those individuals responsible is also something we strongly support.”
Many of the changes to the task force’s approach to fentanyl stem from a 2018 case in which 32-year-old Ashley Romero died from a fentanyl overdose.
Bruce Holder, the man who provided Romero with the fatal drugs, was convicted in April, 2021, of killing a Carbondale man.
Romero’s mother, Andrea Thomas, was motivated by Romero’s death to raise awareness of the dangers fentanyl poses to the community, and her efforts have led to law enforcement approaching fentanyl differently.
“People are dying. This is about saving people’s lives ultimately,” Terlecky said.
After her daughter’s death, Thomas helped create the nonprofit Voices for Awareness Foundation (voicesforawareness.com).
Two Grand Junction mothers who lost daughters to fentanyl overdoses, critical of “4 gram law.”
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