Sunday night, Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty received a call from a local police officer who told him that someone within his jurisdiction had just died from a suspected drug-related poisoning.
We use the word “poisoning” because it’s safe to assume that this death, like so many others lately, was the result of the illegal sale and use of a recreational drug unknown by the user to be laced with a synthetic or human-made opioid called fentanyl.
“These calls are coming in far too frequently,” Dougherty says.
While the opioid crisis is difficult enough, the discovery of illicit drugs containing any random amount of fentanyl — a federally regulated narcotic that was developed as a pain management treatment for cancer and is 100 more times potent than morphine — has become a disturbing trend among street drug-related deaths in our communities.
One of the most striking cases occurred in late February inside a Commerce City apartment, where three women and two men likely died within minutes, according to local law enforcement, after ingesting cocaine that they did not know contained a toxic dose of fentanyl. To make matters worse, a 4-month-old baby was at the scene but was thankfully unharmed.
Nationwide, an estimated 105,752 people died from drug overdoses between September 2020 and September 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with two-thirds of those deaths involving synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl. That’s an alarming number — more than gun deaths and fatal car crashes combined — and a 50% increase over the previous two years.
We are experiencing this rise in drug overdose fatalities here in Colorado with an estimated 1,757 people dying last year, up by 700 from pre-pandemic years, according to preliminary data from the state Department of Public Health and Environment. And of those deaths, an estimated 803 involved fentanyl.
These counterfeit drugs are ravaging our community in Boulder County, with at least 19 deaths last year, according to Boulder County Coroner reports.
The reason drug cartels and dealers have turned to fentanyl is because it is cheap to manufacture and highly addictive. Law enforcement has shown that dealers know they are poisoning and killing our friends, neighbors, coworkers, family members and children. These criminals who put profit above human lives deserve to be punished to the extent of the damage they have done to our communities.
Newly introduced legislation would do just that.
House Bill 1326, introduced March 25 by Speaker of the House Rep. Alec Garnett, D-Denver, and Rep. Mike Lynch, R-Wellington, would make the manufacture or sale of any “material, compound, mixture or preparation containing fentanyl” a Level 1 drug felony when a person died from “using or consuming it.”
This bill will not appeal to those who are not in favor of ramping up criminal penalties to combat illegal drug use and abuse, preferring prevention and treatment instead.
We support all of the above, because it is going to require a massive, all-hands-on-deck effort in order to save lives. The fentanyl crisis is growing and has expanded to where we are hearing from law enforcement that fentanyl is being sprayed on black market marijuana.
And this bill is comprehensive, calling for widespread public education and broader community access to naloxone — a medication used to reverse the deadly effects of opioids — and it provides for mandatory treatment for individuals caught with drugs containing less than 4 grams of fentanyl. There is plenty of time for valid concerns to be heard and for amendments to be made, but this bill is a good first step toward holding those who are preying on a public health crisis accountable while providing much-needed resources for treatment and prevention.
People are going to try drugs out of curiosity and for fun; that is just a given. The young adults who died in the Commerce City apartment didn’t deserve to die, and neither did a University of Colorado Boulder student who died just days before starting his senior year.
We are not condoning illegal drug use, but in an effort to find compassionate and real solutions, it’s important to focus on the tragedy at hand and not judge the user for whatever their reasoning. When it comes to addiction, for instance, science has clearly proven that opioids hijack the brain and with it, all sense and reason. Clinical studies at National Institutes of Health illustrate that laboratory mice with addiction traits will, if given the chance, push a lever for drugs or alcohol until they die, while mice without such biological predispositions won’t.
We are fortunate in Boulder County, where our DA, Drug Task Force, local law enforcement, public health agencies, K-12 school districts and University of Colorado Boulder have been meeting on a regular basis to form a robust response to deaths from fentanyl, including making naloxone available in every school health room in the near future.
Trina Faatz, who facilitates a Substance Use Advisory Group for Boulder County, gave out 500 kits — each kit holds two nasal spray applications of naloxone — to high school students over the last few months.
“This is not to say that 500 kids are actively wanting to use drugs,” she explains. “It’s because these kids realize that there is a terrifying problem out there with any source of street drugs, and they want to be able to help save lives.”
Join in the community effort to help prevent fentanyl overdoses by visiting SubstanceUseAdvisoryGroup.org.
— Julie Marshall for the Editorial Board
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