Sunday, October 2, 2022

“A drug of mass destruction”: Fentanyl deaths increasing in Colorado, reaching an average of two fatalities a day

Courtesy of Andrea Thomas

Andrea Thomas holds an image of her daughter Ashley Romero, who died of a fentanyl overdose in 2018. She was 32 years old.

Eggs sat on the counter and potatoes waited in the pan for brunch until late at night as Ashley Romero died.

She took half a pill, which appeared to be a painkiller given to her by her boyfriend. Romero had chronic pain from pancreatitis his entire life. When she was really in pain, she would sometimes take half the pill her doctor had prescribed.

However this pill was not prescribed. The fentanyl in the fake tablet killed him within minutes. When paramedics arrived at her Grand Junction home, both she and her boyfriend were not responding in her car. She revived her boyfriend with naloxone, but Romero died in the front seat on June 11, 2018.

She was 32 years old, the mother of an 8-year-old boy, the sister of three siblings and the eldest daughter of Andrea Thomas. The day after Romero’s death, her lover died by suicide.

“I see fentanyl as a drug of mass destruction,” Thomas said.

Romero is one of 1,275 Coloradans who died of an overdose associated with fentanyl since 2018 as dealers dumped the deadly synthetic painkiller into the state’s drug market. Experts said fentanyl is particularly dangerous because small amounts can be fatal and the drug can be disguised as other substances and sold to unsuspecting customers. For those who use the substance intentionally, it is especially addictive, dangerous, and difficult to treat.

"A drug of mass destruction": Fentanyl deaths increasing in Colorado, reaching an average of two fatalities a day
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“I rarely see a patient coming in for heroin these days, it’s almost always fentanyl,” said Michelle Gaffney, a physician’s assistant who works in Denver Health’s Outpatient Addiction Treatment Services.

In 2018, at least 102 Coloradans died from an overdose of fentanyl, according to data collected by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The following year, this number doubled – 222 people died. In 2020, the death toll more than doubled again and 540 Coloradans died.

And deaths are still rising in 2021. At least 381 Coloradans died of fentanyl overdoses in the first six months of the year—an average of 64 people a month, or two a day.

Each year, fentanyl deaths represent a large and large portion of all overdose deaths in the state. In 2018, fentanyl caused 10% of overdose deaths. In the first six months of 2021, 44% of all overdoses involved fentanyl.

Death “as a cost of business”

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid used by doctors to treat severe pain. According to the US Drug Enforcement Administration, it is 100 times more potent than morphine and 2 milligrams of the substance can be fatal. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are the primary drivers of the increasing number of overdose deaths in the US. More than 93,000 Americans died of overdose in 2020 and 60% of those deaths involved synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl.

Matt Kirsch, acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado, said illegal fentanyl began to appear in large quantities in Colorado in 2018. Most fentanyl is in the form of tablets, sometimes manufactured to look like prescription pain pills such as oxycodone. But matter also comes in other forms, such as bricks or rocks.

Most pills in Colorado are manufactured in Mexico with chemicals shipped from China. Kirsch said the drug is smuggled or mailed across the border. Pills have varying levels of toxicity, even in the same batch, because cartel-run pill presses in Mexico do not have the same quality controls as manufacturers of prescription pills, he said. .

Kirsch said one reason for the explosion of fentanyl is that it is much cheaper than other drugs. It is completely synthetic and does not require agriculture like heroin, which requires poppy fields. It is easier and more profitable for dealers and manufacturers to sell fentanyl that looks like oxycodone to them than to sell oxycodone, even if it poses a fatal threat to their customer base.

“As disgusting as it may be, I think it would be at least a logical conclusion for significant drug dealers to treat the deaths of some of their customers as a cost to business,” Kirsch said.

Fentanyl differs from many drugs because people using it often don’t know what they are consuming, Kirsch said. They thought they were buying heroin or oxycodone, but instead they bought fentanyl. He said that it is like a case of fraud in a drug case.

“Most of the time buyers are not willing buyers, they are not buying what they think they are buying,” he said.

Gaffney, a Denver health physician’s assistant, said she began seeing an increase in the number of people seeking treatment for fentanyl addiction last summer. Now, about half of those seeking treatment for addiction in her facility use fentanyl pills. The potency of the drug makes it difficult for medical workers to convert users to Suboxone, a drug used to treat opioid addiction.

“Fentanyl is a more potent synthetic opioid, so often when our patients are using fentanyl exclusively, they have more severe withdrawal symptoms, they get sick,” she said.

The potency of fentanyl also means that it often takes several doses of naloxone to reverse an overdose. Naloxone, also known as Narcan, is a drug used to reverse opioid overdose and restore breathing.

“There’s this additional concern about our patients who may use fentanyl because the risk is too high,” Gaffaney said. “We’ve lost patients to fentanyl this year.”

Colorado law enforcement agencies have made several seizures of large quantities of fentanyl. In July investigators with the North Metro Drug Task Force intercepted a shipment of more than 40,000 pills containing fentanyl, three pounds of heroin and nine pounds of meth. Law enforcement officers in the Vail area have found several pounds of fentanyl bullets while making a traffic stop on Interstate 70. Denver police found a kilogram of fentanyl in brick and bullet form while serving a search warrant at a home in 2019. Brick at first looked like black tar heroin and pills oxycodone, but testing showed they were fentanyl.

According to the DEA, a quarter of the pills confiscated contain a lethal dose tested for fentanyl.

“Nobody should experience this”

Federal prosecutors have charged at least four people with death due to the distribution of fentanyl, including the man who brought the bullet that killed Romero to Colorado.

A jury in April convicted the man, Bruce Holder, of distribution that resulted in the 2017 death of Carbondale resident Jonathan Ellington, among other charges. Holder was indicted on charges related to Romero’s death, but prosecutors ultimately decided not to pursue those charges, his mother said.

According to investigators, Holder regularly traveled to Mexico in 2017 and 2018 and picked up thousands of fentanyl pills manufactured to look like oxycodone. He then brought them to Grand Junction, where he and some of his family members distributed them.

Nation World News Desk
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