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Law enforcement details the impact of fentanyl on Colorado communities

Posted at 10:41 AM, Apr 07, 2022

EL PASO COUNTY — Law enforcement in Colorado Springs is speaking out today on the dangers of fentanyl use in our community. The news event comes as the Colorado General Assembly is considering bills to address criminal penalties, access to treatment, and education in our communities.

The United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado and Colorado’s 4th Judicial District Attorney’s Office will be joined be representatives from local and federal agencies in addressing "the alarming increase in fentanyl deaths, which has become a public health and public safety crisis," according to a release. We will highlight the efforts being taken at the federal and state level to hold accountable those who distribute this poison into our communities.

According to El Paso County Coroner Dr. Leon Kelly's 2020 report, 86% of all accidental opioid-related deaths involved heroin or fentanyl.

Fentanyl related deaths in El Paso County
A bar graph shows the number of fentanyl related deaths seen in El Paso County since 2015.

During the press conference, officials announced they would be holding a town hall at a later time to help educate parents of students about the deadliness of fentanyl.

Pending legislation

Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill that would reduce the amount of fentanyl-laced drugs a dealer would need to possess in order to face harsh felony charges and aims to widely increase access to fentanyl strips, Narcan and services for people who suffer from addiction.

According to lawmakers who unveiled the bill, there has been more than a 1,000% increase in fentanyl-related deaths since 2015, when only five Coloradans died of the drug.

The measure makes it a level 4 drug felony to possess any drug or compound that contains fentanyl and weighs more than 4 grams. It also changes the weight a person needs to possess in order to be charged with various levels of drug felonies in Colorado:

  • A person would commit a level 1 drug felony if they distribute, manufacture or sell a drug or compound containing fentanyl or carfentanil that weighs more than 50 grams.
  • A person would commit a level 2 drug felony if they distribute, manufacture or sell a drug or compound containing fentanyl or carfentanil that weighs between 4 grams and 50 grams.
  • A person would commit a level 3 drug felony if they distribute, manufacture or sell a drug or compound containing fentanyl or carfentanil that weighs less than 4 grams.

The bill would also make a person face a level 1 drug felony if they sell a drug or compound containing fentanyl which kills a person whom they sold to and is the proximate cause of death.

A level 1 drug felony would also apply to anyone who imports into Colorado any drug or mixture containing fentanyl that weighs more than 4 grams, as well as anyone who possesses a pill or tablet press or manufacturing equipment with the intent to manufacture a controlled substance containing fentanyl.

Level 1 drug felonies are punishable with sentences of 8-32 years; level 2 drug felonies are punishable with sentences of 4-8 years; level 3 drug felonies are punishable with sentences of 2-4 years; and level 4 drug felonies are punishable sentences of 6-12 months.

But the bill is not limited to punishing drug dealers. The measure would mandate residential treatment as a condition of probation for certain offenses, as well as a fentanyl education class that would be developed by the state office of behavioral health.

It would also expand the places where people can obtain Narcan and testing strips to include schools, require jails to provide them to people with substance abuse disorders upon their release, require community corrections programs to assess people for withdrawal and treat them, and allows the correctional treatment board to send money to corrections facilities to help with overdose prevention.

Further, it would appropriate $20 million from behavioral and mental health funds to an opiate antagonist bulk purchase fund and facilitate lower-cost bulk purchases of Narcan and testing strips. And it would require the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to create a statewide fentanyl prevention and education campaign.

Read more: News 5 Investigates: How many school districts have life-saving drug Narcan accessible for student overdoses?

The sponsors of the bill say those treatment and education programs are aimed at helping people with addictions rather than punishing them for possession, as some other Republicans have pushed for. About $29 million of the money is coming from American Rescue Plan dollars the state received.

Concerns about pending legislation

Some law enforcement organizations and drug treatment organizations are expressing skepticism about the measure in its current form.

A consortium of the County Sheriffs of Colorado, the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, and the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police said while they appreciate the effort and the facets of the bill that include extra penalties for distribution intent, they want even simple possession of fentanyl to be a felony.

“Our response as a state needs to match the serious and deadly consequences brought on by this drug. Not taking these bold steps will only lead to more tragedy for Coloradans,” the groups said in a release. “We are eager to bring our expertise and experience to work with the General Assembly to build upon the current provisions of the bill to get the policy right to make a significant difference in our shared fight against fentanyl.”

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers is in agreement, saying "the Colorado Legislature needs to start listening more to law enforcement and others responsible for public safety, and less to organizations whose objective it is to minimize the consequences for criminal behavior."

Mayor John Suthers says fentanyl bill does not go far enough

In a special brief, the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition and Harm Reduction Action Center, said there is no correlation between overdose deaths and penalties for possession – and pushed back on those who have said HB19-1263, which made possession of drugs up to 4 grams a misdemeanor until the fourth conviction, was responsible for the overdose increase, as overdoses started to spike in 2016 when possession was still a felony.

But the brief also said that increasing penalties for dealers who distribute fentanyl will not likely decrease the supply of the drug.

“Incarcerating drug dealers has little or no impact on disrupting drug supplies because the drug market is dynamic. It responds to the demand for drugs by replacing imprisoned sellers with either new recruits or increased drug selling by existing dealers, which is known as the ‘replacement effect,’” the brief says. “There may be other outcomes that justify revising drug distribution laws, including better integration of fentanyl into the drug sentencing grid or holding dealers accountable, but the past 50 years of drug war policies have clearly demonstrated they will not reduce drug supplies.”

Gov. Jared Polis, who also has pushed for adapted laws to address fentanyl and addiction, said he supports the bill as “a better comprehensive solution that will save lives and improve public safety.”

What is fentanyl?

Six years ago, fentanyl was a relatively new and unheard-of drug. Developed in 1959, it was primarily used as an anesthetic and pain reliever for medical purposes without the side effect of nausea. It is 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin.

Counterfeit drugs DEA.png

In a press conference, officials said most people can't differentiate between real pills and fake ones and offered this graphic as way to help educate the public on the small but important differences.

In 2015, however, fentanyl started to make its way into the United States in noticeable doses. As a synthetic drug, it is cheaper to produce than drugs like heroin, which require cultivation. Because of its potency, people require far less fentanyl to get high.

In the years since, drug dealers started using fentanyl as a cheap substitute to cut their drugs and stretch them farther. Today, according to the CDC, fentanyl is the leading cause of death for adults ages 18-45 in the United States.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse says last year, 75% of cocaine overdose deaths were mixed-use with fentanyl, the same goes with 50% of methamphetamine overdose deaths.

Impacts on our communities

In the year ending in April 2021, fentanyl claimed the lives of 40,010 Americans ages 18-45. That’s more than car accidents (22,442), suicide (21,678), COVID (21,335), and cancer (17,114).

Colorado has reported an alarming spike in deaths. Kirk Bol, MSPH, the manager of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Vital Statistics Program, said earlier this month at least 803 drug overdose deaths in Colorado in 2021 involved fentanyl of some form.

In February, Commerce City Police found 5 people dead in one apartment. District Attorney Brian Mason said all are suspected fentanyl overdoses, "they probably thought they were taking a different drug and didn't know that it was laced with fentanyl."

People in El Paso County are also being impacted. Douglas Floyd and Marlene McGuire face federal charges for the death of McGuire's 16-year-old son earlier this year from a fatal overdose. Colorado Springs School District 11 recently started a program 'Fake but Fatal' to educate staff, students and parents about the dangers of fentanyl. A Mitchell High School student died late last year after being given a fentanyl pill by two classmates.

As reported by News5, Matt Riviere lost both of his sons last year after they ingested Oxycontin laced with fentanyl. "We want to see (felony) possession changed. When it was changed in 2019 to four grams, and fentanyl was included in that, we thought that was way too much. Four grams, about a sugar packet, will kill 2,000 people. We thought (felony) possession was too high and maybe lawmakers will look at that in the future," said Riviere.

New fentanyl legislation brings hope for families who have lost loved ones

El Paso County Coroner Reports

Each link will take you to an infographic detailing the findings from El Paso County Coroner Dr. Leon Kelly, including opioid-related deaths. The full data set for 2021 is not yet available.

Fentanyl Related Deaths: Prevalent drug combinations
This graph shows the makeup of different drug combinations that contributed to the fentanyl related death totals in 2020.

2020 Coroner Report
2019 Coroner Report
2018 Coroner Report
2017 Coroner Report

What teens need to know about the current fentanyl crisis
The signs of a fentanyl overdose, and what needs to happen

EW Scripps' Dan Grossman, Mayo Davison, Anissa Connell, and Blair Miller contributed to this report.

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