As federal prosecutors, we in the U.S. Attorney’s office battle daily with transnational drug dealers who seek to import their poison to Colorado.
Working with our partners at the DEA, the FBI, Homeland Security and local law enforcement, we all too often seize large quantities of heroin, meth and cocaine destined for Colorado’s streets.
Recently, however, we are seeing an increase in another, even more powerful and more addictive drug: fentanyl.
At least 50 times more powerful than heroin and fatal in an amount that would barely cover Lincoln’s eye on a penny, fentanyl is a killer of previously unthought-of proportions.
Exactly how fatal is fentanyl? Put it this way: a mere 4 grams (roughly one, one-hundredth of a pound, or .17 of an ounce) is likely enough to kill everyone in Idaho Springs, Limon or Granby.
Like other opioids such as oxycodone, fentanyl can be prescribed by a doctor for severe pain. And while my office brings a small number of cases each year in which prescription fentanyl is diverted for illicit use, far more common are cases involving the illegal distribution of fentanyl manufactured by drug traffickers in Mexico or China and smuggled into the United States in large quantities.
Because it is so powerful and so hard to dose correctly (given that mere micrograms of it can mean the difference between getting high and a deadly overdose), some drug users are trying to stay away from it.
But drug dealers are often disguising it as heroin or, after mixing it with other substances and pressing it into pill form, marketing it as stolen pain pills like oxycodone (even stamping the blue pills with the real manufacturer’s symbol). Unsuspecting users are then overdosing and, in increasing numbers, dying.
In an effort to help stem this rising tide of death, my office has taken a tough approach on drug dealers who knowingly distribute fentanyl to someone who subsequently dies.
Under federal law, a person charged with such a crime faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.
Indeed, just last month, a Mexican national living in Centennial received a lengthy federal prison sentence after being caught with nearly three pounds of fentanyl.
Just a few months ago, our office charged two men for possessing a kilogram-sized brick of fentanyl that appears to have been disguised to look like black tar heroin.
The year before, two others were sent to prison for selling fentanyl-laced heroin to unwitting buyers, three of whom overdosed and died. We’ve even prosecuted nurses who stole fentanyl intended for suffering patients just to satisfy their own addiction.
Given law enforcement’s increased focus on attacking the fentanyl problem in Colorado, it might seem more than a little odd that our federal and state lawmakers may now be going in the other direction.
Here’s the federal problem: there are new drugs that, while almost identical to fentanyl, might escape prosecution because creative drug cartels are altering the drug’s chemistry ever so slightly to differentiate it from illegal fentanyl. And these so-called fentanyl analogues are often much more powerful than fentanyl – perhaps 100 times more powerful.
In 2018, the Drug Enforcement Administration adopted an emergency rule banning these deadly knockoffs. At the urging of Attorney General William Barr and U.S. Attorneys from around the country, and with the DEA rule set to expire on Feb. 6, Congress just last night adopted another temporary measure to keep the drugs scheduled until 2021.
If a permanent solution isn’t adopted before then, the drug kingpins and traffickers will get the upper hand, and we likely will see a flood of fentanyl-like drugs – and resulting deaths – here in Colorado.
Action is needed from our state legislature as well. Just last year, the General Assembly increased to four grams the amount of most illicit drugs, including fentanyl and fentanyl analogues, that a person can possess before it becomes a felony crime.
Four grams of fentanyl, however, is enough to kill thousands, and one particularly strong analogue (Carfentanil) is even 100 times more powerful than that.
And yet a person can now rest assured that if caught with up to that amount of either drug in Colorado, he or she will likely face only misdemeanor charges. As the chief federal law enforcement officer in Colorado, I know this sends the wrong message to drug traffickers and dealers, as well as to victims and their families.
The General Assembly should amend its new law to lower the misdemeanor limits for possession of fentanyl and its analogues and ensure that these crimes are treated as harshly as these drugs are on our community.
Ultimately, both our federal and state lawmakers need to speak with one voice to help stop the rising tide of fentanyl in Colorado.
The cause is urgent and the time to act is now. Without action, we can expect the ongoing opioid crisis to deepen and to become even more deadly.
Jason R. Dunn is the U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado.
This column was updated on Jan. 30, 2019, to reflect congressional action on Wednesday night.