"No man stands taller than when he stoops to help a child."
|– Abraham Lincoln|
Facing the Colorado fentanyl crisis
|By Erin Malcom|
|According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, overdose death counts in the United States are largely attributed to synthetic opioids. |
Provisional data released May 11 by the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics shows that more than 71,000 people in the United States died from synthetic opioid-related overdoses — primarily from fentanyl — in 2021.
And for the state of Colorado in particular, fentanyl has become an overwhelming concern.
According to the Colorado Health Institute, “In 2020, overdoses involving fentanyl made up about 68% of all opioid analgesic deaths. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of overdose deaths involving fentanyl more than doubled.”
Since then, the problem has continued to escalate.
In 2020, Colorado recorded 540 fentanyl-related deaths, compared to more than 800 fentanyl-related deaths in Colorado in 2021, according to provisional data released by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. In El Paso County alone, the number has increased from only four deaths in 2016, to 102 deaths in 2021, according to data released by the county coroner’s office.
The United States Drug Enforcement Association defines fentanyl: a Schedule II controlled substance that is similar to morphine but about 100 times more potent.
What was originally created to treat pain in cancer and surgical patients in a medical setting ran rampant after foreign manufacturers discovered how to make it cheaper and highly addictive, and then smuggled it into the U.S. from Mexico.
Jessica Blount, the clinical director at Recovery Unlimited in Colorado Springs, a licensed addiction and professional counselor, said fentanyl is “inundating the streets and it can be found in all different forms. When it first started becoming a problem, we would see people take fentanyl patches (which were originally intended for cancer patients to help them with pain management) and they would freeze them, and then they would cut them open and put them under their tongues. But now we’re seeing it mostly in pill form. So, people are either taking the pill orally, crushing them and snorting them, or mixing them and using them intravenously.”
Blount said they are seeing a powder form in all other street drugs, adding that fentanyl is in everything. She said they add fentanyl because it is highly addictive and people quickly become dependent on it.
Often, the illicit fentanyl found in other street drugs is unknowingly consumed by users. Even the users who intentionally consume illicit fentanyl still remain unaware of exactly how much of the drug they’re consuming. The “unknown” surrounding fentanyl is part of what makes it so lethal.
“It’s incredibly dangerous because a tiny amount is enough to kill a 250-pound man,” Blount said. “Fentanyl is 10 times stronger than heroin. It’s extremely concerning because a lot of people don’t actually realize just how dangerous it is.”
In Blount’s experience, the split between intentional fentanyl users and accidental fentanyl users is trending toward 50/50. “It used to be that more people wouldn’t know that they were taking it,” she said. “For example, clients who don’t have any opiate history, maybe let’s say they’re using methamphetamines, are actually testing positive for fentanyl. But now we’re seeing more and more clients where their drug of choice is fentanyl.”
Blount said there are people who call themselves “street pharmacists,” who “sprinkle” fentanyl here and there and then sprinkle some more so users don’t know how much fentanyl they are ingesting. “They could take one pill that has very little fentanyl in it, but their next pill could have a significant amount and that could lead to an overdose,” she said. “You don’t know what’s actually in your drugs and we try to stress that to clients all the time. You might think you’re using cocaine or methamphetamines, or even cannabis, but it’s very possible that it could be laced with fentanyl.”
This issue can impact anyone. Blount said they have seen affluent people, people in poverty, people of all ages and race. “And we have seen younger and younger people using it and that’s concerning,” she said. With more people falling victim to the drug every year, there are no signs of the problem subsiding on its own. Which begs the question: What can be done to combat the fentanyl crisis in Colorado?
In terms of immediate action, Recovery Unlimited is providing free resources to prevent more overdose deaths in the Colorado Springs community. “I can say that because we are so worried about the risk of overdose with fentanyl, we are giving out free Narcan at Recovery Unlimited,” Blount said. “You don’t even have to be a client with us. Anybody can come in and we’ll give you Narcan, which treats a narcotic overdose in an emergency situation, because we want to try to save as many lives as possible.”
Having conversations and educating people to the dangers of fentanyl is vital, she said. “So, I definitely think more information needs to be out there regarding what the drug is and how dangerous it is,” Blount said. “But I also think that there has to be harsher punishment for fentanyl distribution.”
As of May 11, Colorado lawmakers passed HB22-1326 Fentanyl Accountability and Prevention, a bill that, according to the Colorado General Assembly bill summary, “… Makes the unlawful possession of any material, compound, mixture, or preparation that weighs more than 4 grams and contains any amount of fentanyl, carfentanal, or an analog thereof a level 4 drug felony.” In addition to changing the criminal penalty for unlawful possession, the bill supports addiction treatment by funding emergency treatment services and resources and requiring treatment services in jails.
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