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Fremont County changes its approach to opioid addiction

Posted at 9:54 PM, Feb 06, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-07 00:30:48-05

FREMONT COUNTY – Like many communities across America, Fremont County and Cañon City are in the midst of a growing problem with opioid abuse.  But they’re not waiting for Federal or state leaders to do something about it.  They’re tackling it head-on, right now, and not everyone might like the approach.

Per capita, opioid abuse in the form of prescriptions, meth, heroin, and cocaine in Fremont County ranks in the top ten statewide.  Now, Cañon City may become home to a full-fledged detox facility.

“It’s a huge problem here in Fremont County,” said Fremont County Board of Commissioners chairman Dwayne McFall.  “It’s a problem.  It’s a growing problem,” echoed Sheriff Allen Cooper.

Incidents of opioid-related overdoses and arrests are increasing inf Fremont County.  “Just last year, our officers saved four lives with NARCAN,” said Cañon City Mayor Pro-Tem Ashley Smith.  “I’m sure they’ll save some more again this year.”  In fact, Cañon City Police Chief Daric Harvey told Cañon City Council Wednesday afternoon that a fifth overdosing patient was revived by NARCAN just last week.  “We rank seventh in the State of Colorado for opioid abuse,” McFall said.

Cañon City’s most prominent park, Veterans Park, has become a haven lately for abusers, Harvey and Smith both said.  “In bathrooms at parks, we find needles next to playgrounds, we find them in some really odd places,” Harvey said.  Sheriff Cooper echoed that, saying that in the county, “We have the same problem with needles in irrigation ditches, in parking lots.  The deputies pick them up quite frequently.”

But across Fremont County, a paradigm shift is occurring in how to approach and deal with the opioid epidemic, with an emphasis on providing users access to treatment and recovery options rather than arrest them.  “The term we use in law enforcement is: ‘You can’t arrest your way out of this problem,'” Cooper said.

One potentially controversial method of addressing the issue is a full-fledged detox center in Cañon City.  “A detox facility is one of the prime locations for people to receive access to care, and that’s what we really see from the users’ perspective is: we’ve got to break the addiction cycle,” Harvey said.

“Instead of throwing them right back in jail again, they take them straight to a detox center where they can get them the treatment that they need and address the issue of the problem,” Smith said.

Detox centers can quickly become lightning rods of attention for the “not in my backyard” crowd.  “I’m sure we’ll have opposition to it because there are people that think it attracts people that are addicted, possibly,” McFall said.  Harvey and Solvista Health CEO Brian Turner told Cañon City Council Wednesday night that the preferred location for a detox center would be in underutilized space inside St. Thomas More Hospital.  “We were hoping that we could get something up and operational within nine months,” Turner said.

Another method of addressing the issue in Cañon City is needle receptacles inside bathrooms at Veterans Park.  Harvey said they were to be installed “soon.”  “Needle drop boxes that can’t be tampered with, so nobody is going to break into them, but they will be in different park bathrooms so that if someone is using opioids, at the very least their needles don’t end up in our park,” Harvey said.

Cañon City police recently received a more than $500,000 grant from the State of Colorado to expand its Narcotics Enforcement Team and hire an officer dedicated to a three-pronged approach to the opioid issue.  “Mental health, substance use and addiction, and homelessness,” Harvey said.

“I’m anxious to see what the new governor’s plan is as far as addressing these issues at the state level,” Cooper said of Gov. Jared Polis (D-Colorado), but neither he nor other local officials are waiting for direction from higher levels of government.

“I think if we can get those people help, whatever the case is, whatever form it is, that’s going to be beneficial for the community as a whole,” McFall said.