State legislators, law enforcement officials and district attorneys on Thursday stressed the need for a more collaborative response to combat surging fentanyl poisonings that have killed more Coloradans than gun violence and car crashes combined.
“This alarming rise in fentanyl calls for action,” Attorney General Phil Weiser said at the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center during a news conference alongside other state officials.
There’s a need to boost public awareness about the dangers of the powerful synthetic opioid, particularly among young people, and to bolster resources so that law enforcement can properly investigate fentanyl-related deaths, officials said. They also called for stricter penalties for those who distribute the drug.
“Law enforcement do not have the tools or resources right now to do it alone. These are intense investigations and the thought that some of them aren’t being conducted — some victims are left without the closure — is wrong and we have to do better,” Weiser said.
Statewide, the powerful synthetic opioid has been blamed for 624 deaths so far this year, according to the latest data from the state health department. It’s a massive spike from 2018, when there were 102 fentanyl-related deaths. In El Paso County, for example, there were four fatal fentanyl poisonings in 2016. By the end of this year, health officials say there will likely be more than 100.
Colorado law enforcement has seized 367,424 dosage units of fentanyl just this year, Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock said. Two in four of the counterfeit pills seized in the U.S. last year contained a lethal dose of the synthetic drug, up from one in four pills the year before, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
But more work needs to be done to educate young people about the drug’s dangers, and to better equip law enforcement agencies to investigate fentanyl deaths, he said. “Colorado, we can do better than this. We can stop this killer. Our kids and our young adults are dependent on this. We can make a difference if we just work together.”
District attorneys appealed for more effective partnerships to tackle what they called a public health crisis.
“Fentanyl is killing our kids. This is not a partisan issue. This is a public safety issue, and most importantly, this is a public health issue,” 17th Judicial District Attorney Brian Mason said. “Drug cartels preying upon unsuspecting children by lacing drugs with fentanyl and kids are dying.”
Mason said the drug task force working in Adams County can’t test fentanyl in the field anymore due to the high risks. In the past few months, an agent touched fentanyl power, before knowing what it was, and had to use Narcan to prevent an overdose.
It’s also targeting young people, many who are unaware that fentanyl is in a drug before consuming it.
“Kids think they are invincible, they think this only happens to someone else,” said Tami Gottsegen, who lost her son, Braden Burks to fentanyl in January 2019. She believes her son, who had chronic sleeping issues, bought what he thought were two painkiller pills to help him fall asleep. Authorities found the second of two pills, marked M30 and disguised as a prescription oxycodone, next to his body and later learned it contained fentanyl.
“Braden paid the ultimate price for his decision that night and his family and friends continue to pay for the rest of our lives. There should be an enormous price to pay by making the decision to sell drugs, especially knowing the risk, and an even harsher punishment when a death occurs,” she said.
Twentieth Judicial District Attorney Michael Dougherty called for more treatment for those suffering from addiction. Colorado ranks in the bottom 10 states for providing access to substance abuse treatments.
“For families and individuals struggling with addiction — there are too few places to go for treatment and to go for help. We need to do a lot better as a state to invest in our people and invest in the health of this great state,” Dougherty said.
Not everyone who died from fentanyl is addicted, though, he added, referencing many young people who take a pill they believe to be a pharmaceutical drug.
“We need stiffer penalties for individuals who are pedaling these drugs and distributing these drugs. Particularly those … who are selling pills that are laced with fentanyl that look like other drugs. We have too many people dying who had no idea what they were actually taking, that they were putting their lives at risk,” Dougherty said.
Enforcement must also be ramped up, said 21st Judicial District Attorney Dan Rubinstein. Along the Colorado border along I-70, law enforcement officials routinely pull over cars that are transporting between 10 to 30 pounds of powder fentanyl that can be turned into thousands of pills, he said.
State Sen. Brittany Pettersen, a Democrat, said she’s been working alongside Republican state Sen. Kevin Priola to increase access to treatment for those struggling with addiction and hopes to increase public awareness about “the greatest overdose crisis in our nation’s history.”
“Another piece of this puzzle is going after drug cartels. It’s not just the pharmaceutical companies that have profited off the devastation here in Colorado and the United States,” Pettersen said.
Weiser said stricter penalties are needed for those that distribute lethal doses of fentanyl.
“Laws were made before we understood the deadly impact of fentanyl,” Weiser said. “With more knowledge and awareness, there is an opportunity to reevaluate whether the penalties are adequate, given that there are people dealing fentanyl today that are knowingly misrepresenting what they are giving people.”
“We need to make sure that we hold people accountable who are in the business of feeding our Coloradans to take this pill and die.”