Overdose deaths caused by fentanyl — a synthetic opioid roughly 50 times stronger than heroin — have nearly doubled in El Paso County in the last year, recent data shows, evidence of the deadly drug’s westward expansion.
From January through the beginning of October, 16 El Paso County residents died from fentanyl overdoses —up from nine recorded fentanyl-related deaths the year before, according to Colorado’s Center for Health and Environmental Data.
Three years ago, when fentanyl-related overdoses were densely concentrated in the northeast United States, the drug was barely registered as a cause of death in El Paso County. In 2017, five people died from the drug, data shows.
“We knew it was coming, but didn’t see it really hit until this year,” said Lt. Shane Mitchell, who oversees Metro Vice, Narcotics and Intelligence, a multijurisdictional drug task force.
Even with the increase, fentanyl still accounts for a small number of the drug deaths in the county, with meth claiming 57 lives last year, heroin 46 and cocaine 17, according to state records.
Nevertheless, fentanyl’s extreme potency and “exponential increase” in the community has law enforcement officials concerned. In 2017, the drug task force made zero confiscations of the drug. This year, detectives seized 35 grams of fentanyl in powder form and 3,766 pills, Mitchell said.
Arguably the bigger danger, though, lies in fentanyl being sold illicitly as other, less lethal drugs, including oxycodone, Percocet and Xanax, he said, comparing the purchase of narcotics on the black market as a game of “Russian roulette.”
Just 2 milligrams of fentanyl — equivalent to 2 to 3 grains of common table salt — can kill the average person, Mitchell said.
“We want (the community) to understand the danger that is out there. The majority of the people distributing these pills, they have no clue that the product they are distributing is cut with deadly fentanyl.”
A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows fentanyl’s earliest appearance as it cut a deadly swath across the Northeast and Midwest in 2017. There, the synthetic opioid was most frequently cited as the cause of overdoses in all five regions east of the Mississippi River and the nearby region that includes Iowa, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska.
In the West though, methamphetamine was most often cited as a cause of overdoses. Only 185 fentanyl-related overdoses — out of the 25,520 nationwide — were recorded in the areas including Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming, the study shows.
That’s starting to change, local health officials said.
When prescribed, fentanyl is often in a patch or lozenge form and used to help relieve pain for cancer and trauma patients, said Robin Johnson, medical director for El Paso County Health Department.
“It really has just been in the last three years, we have started to see fentanyl hitting our community more consistently,” said Johnson, who practiced emergency medicine for more than 20 years at UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central.
“That was not something when I first started practicing that I would have ever anticipated.”
The rise of fentanyl-related overdoses in El Paso County comes after a slight decline in drug overdose deaths — the first since 2009. In 2018, 130 people died from drug overdoses, 13 less than in 2017, according to data from CDPHE.
While experts found the drop “encouraging,” many are reluctant to say that Colorado has turned a corner on the opioid epidemic.
Fentanyl, the third wave in the epidemic, is now being found in the form of powder and pills. Hard-core addicts are mixing fentanyl with other drugs, such as heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine as a way to reach a more intense high.
“They want the most for their money, not understanding that might be the last time they use drugs,” Mitchell said.
Why fentanyl was slow to reach the Western United States and Pikes Peak region is unclear and a topic of debate and research. But Mitchell said Colorado Springs — which lies on two major drug corridors — has a lot of access to drugs shipped across the country.
The illicit form of the drug typically is manufactured in Chinese labs before it’s shipped to Canada and Mexico, he said.
Then, drug distributors cart fentanyl up from Mexico, through Colorado Springs along Interstate 25, before transporting it to Denver, he said. From the east, drugs are often transported along Interstate 70, he said.
The drug is also “pennies on the dollar” compared to heroin and methamphetamine, he said, explaining that fentanyl is saving drug cartels thousands of dollars. “Not only is it stronger, but they are going to get a bang for their buck with people who are going to come back to buy.”
Colorado Springs being home to five military institutions, with several people returning after deployment with injuries and mental health issues needing medication, also plays a role in the city’s substance abuse, Mitchell said.
Over the past several years, as access to prescription pills was squeezed by doctors, those addicted to opiates turned to meth or heroin.
“They needed a way to continue to get their fix. If they can’t get them at a pharmacy, they’re turning to the streets,” he said.
Fentanyl poses a bigger risk for law enforcement, too, Mitchell said. Officers must be careful when handling the drug because, in patch form or if exposed to moisture, it is easily absorbed through the skin. In the past year, the drug task force purchased a $20,000 laser-type tool that can determine the makeup of a drug without requiring officers to open the bag and allowing the powder go into the air.
All officers carry naloxone and Narcan, used to counteract overdoses, in the case they come in contact with fentanyl, which can stop someone from breathing “in a matter of minutes,” he said.
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