Denver, CO

Fentanyl misinformation endangers lives: experts educate Denver council

David Heitz
Photo byPharmacy Images/Unsplash

In 2022, every 38 hours someone died of a fentanyl overdose in Denver.

That sobering statistic is according to Dr. Sterling McLarem of the Denver Medical Examiner’s Office. She spoke during a roundtable on fentanyl during the Public Safety, Housing, Education and Homelessness Committee meeting of the Denver City Council on Wednesday. She was joined by Dr. Robert Valuck, a professor of public health at Anschutz Medical Campus, who spoke knowledgeably and passionately about the fentanyl crisis.

Unfortunately, misinformation about fentanyl is rampant, according to Valuck. He said it’s so bad many police officers will not assist people who are dying of a fentanyl overdose or even enter the room, Valuck said.

And although fentanyl seems to get all the headlines, alcohol is by far the most commonly abused substance in Denver, a panel of experts told the committee last month. Earlier this month, the roundtable discussion featured people in recovery from drugs and alcohol.

Misinformation about fentanyl widespread

Common misconceptions and their corresponding truths include:

You cannot overdose on fentanyl by touching it. It is a widespread fallacy that fentanyl is so potent you can overdose by touching it. Basic personal protection equipment – a mask – is all that is needed to keep first responders safe, Valuck said.

Naloxone does work on fentanyl overdoses. A common misconception is that Narcan is not powerful enough. It may take a second dose, Valuck said, but it does work on fentanyl overdoses.

Fentanyl has approved medical uses for treating pain and is used as anesthesia. Valuck said it is a good medicine when used properly under the supervision of a doctor. He said he would not want to be cut open and have his appendix removed without something like fentanyl.

There is no overdose risk from secondhand smoke. The pressed blue fentanyl pills often are smoked with aluminum foil.

Misinformation leads to deaths

Valuck said the misinformation is dangerous because it causes people to be delayed or refused treatment for overdose in some instances. It also further stigmatizes people use drugs as well as people who prescribe or use fentanyl legally.

McLarem said some people die so quickly from overdose the drug paraphernalia still is in their hand when first responders arrive on scene. She said fentanyl is not commonly used to commit suicide.

McLarem noted that until 2019, nobody under the age of 18 ever had died of fentanyl. Now that’s changing.

“Fentanyl is the most potent thing we’ve ever seen,” Valuck said, adding something stronger surely will come along soon enough.

He said the economics of fentanyl are such that the drug is produced efficiently in overseas labs and distributed through the United States Postal Service, FedEx and others.

Avoiding political rhetoric

City Council member Robin Kniech, who heads the Public Safety, Housing, Education and Homelessness Committee spearheaded a series of roundtable meetings with community experts about addiction. She did this because she wants the committee to make decisions based in “well rounded data – to ground ourselves in the facts, not the hype, not the political rhetoric.”

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at local newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am living proof that people can rebound from mental illness with proper treatment, even after experiencing homelessness. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living here. You can email me news releases and story ideas at

Denver, CO

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