The alert shared in Boulder a few weeks ago warned of a powdered form of fentanyl, its texture similar to drywall plaster, and its color pink or tan, like sand.
Boulder law enforcement officers found it near a dead body. They told the county health department, which released the public health alert five days later. The University of Colorado posted the alert on its website and Facebook page the same day, warning students to beware of the deadly powder.
This is what they wanted, the parents who have pushed CU and the rest of the state’s universities and colleges for two years to do more to protect students from fentanyl poisoning.
Only they want more. And they want the warnings to come faster.
The group, organized by the nonprofit Blue Rising Community, includes the parents of five young adults who died from fentanyl poisoning. After their deaths, the parents questioned why state universities had not done more to warn students, especially when local authorities knew that a particularly deadly batch of counterfeit oxycodone or Xanax containing fentanyl was circulating.
Ross Panning, 20, was about to start his senior year at CU Boulder when he died in his apartment after taking a mix of drugs that contained fentanyl in June 2021. His death occurred within hours of a second young man in Boulder.
Miles Brundige, 19, was in the fall of his sophomore year at CU when he died in 2020 after taking what he thought was oxy. The two pills he took contained enough fentanyl to kill three people, said his mother, Chelsea Brundige.
Madeline Globe, 20, died in August 2017 as she was headed into her senior year in Boulder. She thought she was buying Xanax, but the pills were counterfeit and contained fentanyl, according to her father, Alden Globe.
Andrew and Stephen Riviere, brothers, died side by side in their Colorado Springs apartment in 2021 after taking pills that looked like oxy. They were 21 and 19, and were working at restaurants before Stephen planned to enroll at CU Colorado Springs.
The parents of all of them have been booking meetings with university leaders across Colorado, forcing them to listen to what happened to their children and asking them to adopt a checklist of action items, including participation in an overdose map that would quickly alert school leaders about fentanyl deaths in their cities and on campus.
They’ve made progress. These schools have agreed to all or at least part of their requests: CU Boulder, CU Colorado Springs, University of Northern Colorado, Colorado Mesa, Colorado School of Mines, Metropolitan State, Western Colorado University, Aims Community College, Front Range Community College and Otero College.
Colorado College recently reached out to the group to start talks. They are still pursuing cooperation from Colorado State University and other schools.
“Is it a pill or is it poison?”
As part of the checklist, Blue Rising asked schools to use posters, magnets and koozies created by the group as part of its “You Can’t Outsmart Fentanyl” campaign, funded by $150,000 in donations.
The items list drugs that may contain fentanyl and focus on the message that just 2 milligrams of fentanyl can kill a person. “Can you spot the fake?” asks a poster showing rows of Xanax. Another, depicting oxycodone pills, says “Is it a pill or is it poison?” They want universities to hang the posters in residence halls and stick the magnets on dorm refrigerators.
While they’re pleased with the progress, Blue Rising leaders said the process has been frustratingly slow, and that some schools at times have seemed too concerned about how warnings about campus drug use will affect their reputations. Universities, citing privacy laws and delays in autopsy results, do not announce that students have died from fentanyl — the posted warnings say that potentially deadly drugs are circulating.
“One of the most surprising things to me personally is that the schools in conservative areas seem to be the most willing to talk about drug use, and be aggressive about it,” said Dawn Reinfeld, executive director of Blue Rising. “Some of the schools we met with were like, ‘Yes, we want to do everything. We’re going to do everything and anything.’ And some have been more complicated.”
Fentanyl is the No. 1 killer nationally of people ages 18-45. In Colorado, 920 people died last year after taking counterfeit prescription pills that contained fentanyl. Of those, 120 were ages 15 to 24, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Fentanyl deaths regularly happen in clusters, sometimes because a particularly deadly batch of counterfeit oxy or Xanax makes its way to one community.
Blue Rising pushed colleges to participate in an overdose map from the federal Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, which includes 34 counties in four states. The map, which isn’t available to the public, allows law enforcement to input overdose deaths in order to “mobilize an immediate response to a sudden increase, or spike in overdose events.”
Colleges can sign up to receive alerts when there is a death nearby.
Western Colorado University in Gunnison was among those eager to partner with Blue Rising.
The school with 3,200 students has the group’s posters throughout residence halls and its magnets on metal doors and apartment refrigerators. The university also has placed naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, at various spots on campus, and students are required to undergo training on how to use it.
A campus map shows the naloxone locations, which also have 30-second videos about how to administer the opioid antidote.
Western’s security department is working with law enforcement agencies to participate in the overdose map, said McKenzie Mathewson, the university’s associate director of community wellness. So far, no student has needed naloxone on campus and Mathewson said no students have died from fentanyl. But university officials are planning ahead.
“We know that what impacts the Front Range sometimes trickles into our community,” she said.
“If you would send out a message about an active shooter …”
Panning, who hadn’t even heard of counterfeit drugs containing fentanyl before his son died, said he has appreciated CU’s efforts to include fentanyl warnings on its website, but that it’s not enough. “It’s not to the level that it needs to be,” he said. ”They kind of downplay it.
“It’s a worldwide problem, right? What are you doing as a university to get in front of it? What are you doing to try to slow it down?”
Panning and other parents say it’s time that universities handle fentanyl poisoning like on-campus crimes.
Universities are not required to say how many students died of an overdose, for example. After Ross Panning died, CU told The Colorado Sun it did not keep track of the cause of student deaths. A university spokesperson reiterated the same thing last week, saying it was the job of the coroner to determine cause of death, though that doesn’t explain why the university doesn’t keep count.
In contrast, universities are required under the federal Clery Act to disclose information about on-campus crime in an annual report. The law also requires colleges to give “timely warnings” about criminal activity when there is an ongoing threat.
“If you would send out a message about an active shooter, you should also be sending out a message that there are pills or cocaine that people have been poisoned or overdosed from, and we need to warn people in an honest way,” said Blue Rising’s Reinfeld.
Panning said that after his son’s death, he didn’t receive much support from the university or local law enforcement as he dealt with, on top of everything else, untangling his son’s lease and school enrollment. He had to reach out to CU, instead of the other way around. It’s why the checklist from Blue Rising includes that colleges designate a staff member to help families when a student dies.
“I had to make calls,” he said. “It wasn’t the university coming to me to try to assist our family. I feel like the police department dropped the ball just as much as CU did.”
CU Boulder said that its dean of students reaches out to a student’s family to offer support when a student dies.
The university said its partnership with Blue Rising has helped CU “enhance its efforts” to educate students about fentanyl. It was the first school in the state to sign on to the overdose map.
Since September 2022, university police have been able to contribute overdose deaths and overdose reversals to the map, and the school receives alerts about spikes in the community so that it can warn students.
“It’s something that is a really powerful tool,” said Kathryn Dailey, director of health promotion for CU’s Collegiate Recovery Community. “It truly does take the effort of an entire community.”
Last spring, when there were five fentanyl overdoses in 36 hours in Boulder, the university not only posted alerts on social media but on television screens that serve as digital message boards throughout campus, she said.
New students receive a video module about fentanyl before arriving on campus. And the university is now using some of Blue Rising’s materials, including buttons that students can wear to show they are carrying naloxone.
“Poisoning” versus “overdose”
One point of contention between the parent group and some colleges has been that the parents insist on using the word “poisoning” instead of “overdose” in their marketing materials. It’s a nuance that has put them at odds with some university administrators.
CU Boulder, for one, uses “overdose” or “accidental” or “unintentional overdose” and does not use some of Blue Rising’s materials. The university said the terms align with public health messaging and medical definitions.
For the parents of students who died, the term poisoning makes it clear that their children could not have known that such a small amount of a drug could kill them. It puts blame on the drug dealers who sold fake prescription drugs. And it separates the story of college kids dropping dead from experimental drugs from that of habitual users who need rehab.
“Our kids had, in most cases, no interest in drugs,” Globe said. “They unfortunately got one thing that killed them, the one-pill kill. There’s a very powerful and good group of people who are in harm reduction, people trying to run methadone clinics, and treat what they see on the street every day. It’s horrific and it’s incredible work, and I admire them. But that’s nothing to do with what we’re here about.”
Parents want law regulating drug sales on social media
Blue Rising, aided by the powerful testimony of parents whose sons and daughters died at college, helped push through a 2022 state law that set aside $7 million to help investigate and prosecute cases of fentanyl poisonings.
The Fentanyl Accountability and Prevention Act increases the penalties for possessing or distributing fentanyl and creates a grant program for law enforcement investigations.
In the next legislative session, the same families want lawmakers to hold social media sites accountable for their role in illicit drug sales. The request comes after a report from state Attorney General Phil Weiser’s office in March that found that Snapchat, Tinder, Bumble and other sites serve as marketplaces for counterfeit prescription drugs containing fentanyl.
Dealers use “special slang terms, emojis, and methods of redirecting end users to drug content,” through hyperlinks or QR codes, to sell illegal drugs, the attorney general’s report said. On Snapchat, for example, messages self-destruct, destroying the evidence of a drug sale.
As many as six in 10 counterfeit pills contain a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl. Most of the pills entering Colorado were manufactured in Mexico with chemicals shipped there from China.
While the dangers of fentanyl are more widely known today than when Globe’s daughter died in 2017, the Steamboat Springs dad said there is a lot more work to do.
“We’ve put a tiny dent in the universe, but it’s like a kite in a hurricane,” he said. “All of us are spitting in the wind.”
Brundige hadn’t given fentanyl much thought before it took her son; she thought of it as a medical drug that paramedics gave to people in “ambulances and ski toboggans when you were writhing in pain.”
“I can’t do anything for Miles and I can’t do anything with Miles, ever again,” she said. “But this gives me a cause. And every conversation is one more person woken up a little bit, and that’s better than it was before we started.”