Fentanyl deaths hit record high as Coloradans search for solutions

Health

DENVER (KDVR) — It’s a cold night outside the Denver medical examiner’s office, even colder as we slip into the main freezer used to house bodies. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has left this department busier than ever, with bodies piled up neatly on shelves throughout the room. 

The body storage freezer at the Denver Medical Examiner’s Office. (Credit: KDVR)

But it’s a different crisis that’s keeping Dr. James Caruso especially busy: overdose deaths. 

In 2020, his department performed autopsies on 370 overdose victims, the highest number on record.

“That is really what is killing people in Denver,” said Caruso. 

For a number of years, law enforcement across Colorado has been carefully watching an alarming trend, some predicting it would get worse with the eventual arrival of fentanyl. 

It has clearly arrived. 

In 2020, more people in Denver died from overdosing on fentanyl than from car crashes and homicides combined.

Overdose deaths in Colorado over the past few years. (Credit: KDVR)

Statewide, 534 people died from fentanyl-related overdoses, accounting for more than one-third of total overdose deaths.

“What we’re seeing is not prescribed fentanyl,” said Caruso. “We’re seeing street fentanyl, which is really easy to manufacture in a chemistry lab.”

Fentanyl, in its intended form, is a prescription opioid used to treat pain. In recent years, however, manufactured versions have been smuggled in from places like Mexico.

Fentanyl is considered 10 times more powerful than heroin, giving illicit drug dealers a cheap, powerful punch. 

“The importation of a lot of these fentanyl analogs has made it very dangerous, and the people who are buying these drugs, have no idea what they’re getting.”

That was the case for Amanda Alexander, who overdosed on what she thought was heroin in Boston in 2009. 

“I do remember doing it and instantly thinking it was a lot stronger than I had assumed it would be,” she said. “It was not the same product; It had been adulterated in some way.” 

Alexander now believes that batch had been laced with fentanyl, giving drug manufacturers a cheap, powerful punch. 

“Most of the time, the person you’re getting it from you trust,” she said. “But what I learned years after is that, yes, I trust the person that I’m directly giving money to, but I don’t know the three, four people behind them that it has to get through first.”

Alexander said news that fentanyl has arrived in Denver should concern everyone.

“It was scary, because I know that once it’s here, it’s here to stay,” she said. 

Fentanyl Related Deaths:

  • 2017: 18
  • 2018: 17
  • 2019: 56
  • 2020: 159

At Denver’s Harm Reduction Action Center, Lisa Raville said the staff has been preparing for a spike in deaths.

“We were never too cute to think fentanyl wouldn’t come here,” she said. “We know that it’s been used as a cheap cut for drugs for years.”

The HRAC has been handing out free fentanyl testing strips, hoping to prevent overdoses from those using various opiates.

“They test your drug to see if fentanyl or fentanyl analogs are present before you use, and then you can do something about it, so it’s an overdose prevention technique,” she said. 

Raville is also continuing to fight for supervised injection sites, to where people could bring their own drugs to use while being monitored by a trained professional. 

A safe injection site (Credit: KDVR)

The Denver City Council has approved those sites, but they remain illegal on the state level. 

“You can properly dispose of your syringe right there, and in 11 countries, 150 sites, in over 20 years, nobody’s ever died of an overdose at one of these places,” she said. 

Opponents have said the sites diminish nearby property values. Others have argued they encourage drug use and that resources should be going more towards prevention techniques and rehabilitation. 

Raville questions how high the overdose numbers need to climb before the state takes action.

“We are losing too many people, and we know we can do better, so the delays are costing lives,” she said. 

You can learn more about obtaining fentanyl testing strips, safe syringe access and more here.

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