By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver
(Denver, Colo.) In the grip of a Denver fentanyl epidemic, advocates for the addicted fear laws to penalize drug dealers could cause more deaths.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 100 times more powerful than morphine. "The highly addictive fentanyl originated as a medication to ease people's pain, and many patients turned to dangerous street substitutes when their prescriptions ran out," according to a University of Denver news release. "Nowadays, though, China is sending chemicals to Mexico, where fentanyl is manufactured, often in the middle of cattle fields to elude detection."
Colorado prosecutes drug dealers who supply fentanyl to someone who overdoses. Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said the penalties should be harsher during a recent news conference.
He said a record number of people in Colorado – twice as many as in 2018 – died from drug overdoses in 2021. More than 1,800 perished. More people die due to fentanyl overdoses than car crashes, he said.
Two fentanyl deaths per day in Denver
According to the University of Denver, about two people die daily from fentanyl overdoses in Denver.
Weisser ticked off several successful prosecutions of cartels dolling out pills containing fentanyl. Getting the drug off the streets saved countless lives, he said.
"Drug task forces have seized 367,000 dosage units of fentanyl this year," Weiser said. "Any one of those doses could be a fatal dose."
Should addicts be 'committed' to rehab?
A Denver City Council member suggests it may be necessary to begin "committing" the addicted.
"Fentanyl is all over our city, and it is incredibly dangerous and destructive to individuals," Chris Hinds said during a live stream Friday on Facebook. "Some who are addicted to fentanyl may not have the faculty to say, 'I choose to remove myself from the slavery of fentanyl addiction.'"
While stopping short of saying police should throw the addicted into rehab, "certainly there should be a discussion."
Safe injection site on hold
Lisa Reville, director of the Harm Reduction Action Center, said Denver City Council approved a safe injection site a few years ago but never opened it. Safe injection sites are places people can inject drugs in the presence of trained healthcare professionals.
The injection site never opened because a change needs to occur in state law to make it legal, Reville explained.
"Denver City Council passed overdose prevention sites over 900 drug-related deaths ago in Denver," Reville told NewsBreak. "Things could have been so different and so many people would still be alive today."
Fentanyl testing strips, meanwhile, can help save lives, too, Reville said. The center gives out the strips for free, but only to registered clients.
Laws increase stigma, marginalization, advocates say
Drug Policy Alliance explains why such laws lead to more deaths in a policy paper.
"Criminalizing people who sell and use drugs, through means like drug-induced homicide charges, amplifies the risk of fatal overdoses and diseases by increasing stigma and marginalization and driving people away from needed medical care, treatment, and harm reduction services," the policy paper reads.
"On the other hand, proven strategies are available to reduce the harms associated with drug misuse, treat dependence and addiction, improve immediate overdose responses, enhance public safety, and prevent fatalities.
"These strategies include expanding access to the life-saving medicine naloxone and training in how to administer it; enacting and implementing legal protections that encourage people to call for medical help for overdose victims; training people how to prevent, recognize, and respond to an overdose; increasing access to opioid agonist treatment such as methadone and buprenorphine, and to other effective, non-coercive drug treatments; authorizing drug checking and safe consumption sites; and improving research on promising drug treatments. Each of these strategies has evidence to support its effectiveness. Drug-induced homicide laws have none."
In Denver, street outreach crews regularly distribute fresh needles to homeless encampment dwellers. They also provide naloxone and fentanyl testing strips.
Good Samaritan laws weakened
Drug-induced homicide laws kill, advocates for the addicted claim. "Increasing, and wholly preventable, overdose fatalities are an expected by-product of drug-induced homicide law enforcement," according to the alliance's website.
"The most common reason people cite for not calling 911 in the event of an overdose is fear of police involvement."
Colorado is among 40 states and the District of Columbia which have passed 911 Good Samaritan laws. The laws provide, in varying degrees, limited criminal immunity for drug-related offenses for those who seek medical assistance for an overdose victim.
"This public health approach to problematic drug use, however, is rendered useless by enforcement of drug-induced homicide laws," according to the alliance.
Fentanyl claims high school students, people on the street
Tami Gottsegen lost her son, a popular high school student, to a fentanyl overdose. Braden Burks died in 2019. Gotsegen said her son likely had no idea he was taking fentanyl.
He bought two pills from an acquaintance one night. His mother suspects her son was trying to treat his insomnia.
He took one pill. The second, stamped to look like prescription Oxycodone, was found in his belongings.
"The media paints a picture (of fentanyl addicts) of homeless people laying on the street unconscious," Gottsegen said during a press conference with Weiser. "People tend to tune out when they see this."
Gottsegen said she has a friend who also lost her son to a fentanyl overdose, and the police did nothing to find the dealer.
"I feel very strongly that every death should be investigated, and every drug dealer should be prosecuted."
Cartel lookalike pills are dead ringers
Weiser said that the cartels continuously crank out deadly pills laced with fentanyl that look like their legal counterparts. Many lookalike opioid painkillers, and counterfeit benzodiazepines like Xanax, often test positive for fentanyl.
Now, however, fentanyl is showing up everywhere, law enforcement sources say. It's in cocaine and methamphetamine, too.
Colorado offers naloxone, the opioid reversal drug, for free and reduced rates to local public health agencies, school districts, harm reduction agencies like HRAC, law enforcement, recreation centers, shopping centers, and workplaces. You can learn more about that program by clicking here.
HRAC supplies fentanyl test strips, naloxone, and overdose prevention education to people enrolled in its programs. It does not provide fentanyl test strips or naloxone to the public.