Colorado’s fentanyl epidemic
State Rep. Leslie Herod joins health experts, community officials at MSU Denver to discuss ways to address the crisis.
A Major League Baseball player from California. A group of five friends in Commerce City. A high school student in Colorado Springs. Normally, these people wouldn’t have much in common, but they all tragically died from fentanyl overdoses.
The drug has rapidly become the leading cause of death of Americans between ages 18 and 45. Since 2015, Colorado has seen a 1,008% increase in fentanyl-related deaths, that number greater than any other state except Alaska. In 2021, the Colorado State Patrol seized five times more fentanyl than it had the previous year.
With overdoses rising so fast in Colorado, Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Department of Social Work held a panel March 17 with state Rep. Leslie Herod and local health experts and community officials to discuss the issue and ways to resolve it.
What is fentanyl, and why is it dangerous?
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid similar to morphine but 50 to 100 times more potent. The pharmaceutical version is typically prescribed by a physician to treat chronic, severe or post-surgery pain and is monitored for potential abuse. Like other opioids, fentanyl produces euphoria and can lead to chemical dependency.
It is also manufactured illegally in foreign labs and smuggled into the United States. One kilogram of fentanyl has the potential to kill 500,000 people, though lethality ranges according to a person’s size and level of tolerance. Because of its low cost, fentanyl is often mixed with other street drugs such as heroin, methamphetamine or cocaine, in many cases without the consumer’s knowledge.
While fentanyl is manufactured in pill form, anything that isn’t purchased directly from a pharmacy can be laced with it, including cannabis. This means fentanyl use isn’t restricted to certain populations or demographics, making it especially dangerous and widespread.
“It looks like everyone (is susceptible),” Herod said. “And that’s what makes this deadly drug so very scary.”
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Reducing the stigma
Raven Brown, a second-year graduate student in Social Work at MSU Denver, interns at Denver Health with the substance-treatment team. Brown said she hears a lot of conversation that places the blame on substance-abuse victims who ask for help instead of focusing on where and how people are gaining access to illegal drugs.
Chris Richardson, an MSU Denver alumnus and associate director of Criminal Justice Services with the Mental Health Center of Denver, believes that eliminating the stigma around mental health and drug use is one of the best things that can be done to solve Colorado’s fentanyl crisis.
“We need to provide a space that actually allows those conversations to happen, where (addiction) isn’t vilified or shameful,” Richardson said. “It’s a part of the human experience that sometimes just happens.”
To address addiction and curb overdoses, New York City authorized two legal injection sites in November. Since then, 134 overdoses have been prevented, according to the New York City Department of Health, far exceeding initial predictions. Officials in other states are watching closely to determine whether to adopt similar programs.
Prevention vs. reduction
Panelists at the MSU Denver event debated the best approaches to handling the fentanyl epidemic. Some argued for drug prevention, while others pushed for safe spaces, such as those in New York, that encourage discussion and reduce harm.
Michel Holien, a licensed clinical worker and prevention-services manager at Denver Public Schools, believes firmly in prevention.
“We really have to address the reasons why people use, like trauma, like abuse, and we also have to focus on the reasons people don’t use,” Holien said. “What are the protective factors that we want to put into place so that kids are making choices to hopefully wait, if not completely abstain?”
Herod added that incarcerating drug users hasn’t produced the results officials were hoping for. Many recreational drug users aren’t aware they’re consuming substances laced with fentanyl, and “incarceration isn’t going to help, because it’s being smuggled into our prisons as well,” she said.
Shawn Brndiar, licensed clinical social worker and addiction counselor, agreed with Herod. Brndiar, an MSU Denver alumnus and affiliate professor of Social Work, is 14 years sober and has seen “both sides of the justice system.” He emphasized the importance of distinguishing between drug traffickers and low-level dealers.
Penalizing low-level dealers with second- and third-degree felonies “doesn’t work, nor does it make the problem go away,” he said.
Lawmakers are currently working on a bill to address the threats of fentanyl use. The bill would increase penalties for dealers, make testing strips widely available, and require education and treatment programs for users. Additionally, the bill designates $23 million towards harm reduction, including treating people who are incarcerated for fentanyl addiction.
One clear takeaway from the panel: There’s no one policy or program that can put an end to the problem. Destigmatizing substance abuse and having compassion for people dealing with addiction can make an impact. Herod encouraged Coloradans to testify before the General Assembly and share their personal stories and perspectives on addiction.
“I’m not a person who believes we can only have social workers or clinicians at the table to find these solutions,” she said, “or that we have to kick law enforcement out or that the courts have no reason to be involved in this. That is absolutely not true, it’s not real, and that’s not how communities work. Everyone should be involved in this conversation.”
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