The rising threat of fentanyl: How the deadly synthetic opioid has gained traction in Colorado and Eagle County
Part I in a series
Across Colorado, a silent killer has become increasingly responsible for a number of overdose deaths. Between 2015 and 2021, fentanyl’s death toll in Colorado has increased at a faster rate than all other states in the country except Alaska. Whether on its own or in a combination with other drugs, fentanyl’s potency and growing presence has become a rising problem in the state and across the nation.
The next wave of the opioid crisis, fentanyl poses a threat to communities where recreational and habitual drug users could be unknowingly putting themselves in harm’s way.
Part I: Inside the new wave of the opioid crisis and how fentanyl is changing the drug landscape
The growing fentanyl crisis is an example of the challenges lurking beneath the rosy exterior of mountain resort living. However, a group of community members, local leaders and experts are attempting to bring conversations around fentanyl to the surface — tackling the problem before it gets out of control.
What is fentanyl?
While the rise of synthetic fentanyl has had widespread impacts, the drug was initially created for pharmaceutical and pain management use.
“Pharmaceutical fentanyl was developed for pain management and treatment of cancer and cancer patients and symptoms,” said Kala Bettis, the outreach operations manager at Eagle Valley Behavioral Health.
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As a substance, fentanyl is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine, and 10 times stronger then heroin — meaning a lethal dose of fentanyl is significantly smaller than a lethal dose of any other opiate.
While fentanyl’s origins were in medical pain management, the fentanyl currently being seized and seen on the streets is a whole other beast.
Maggie Seldeen, founder of High Rockies Harm Reduction, referred to the fentanyl on the streets as “an illicitly manufactured white powder.”
“It’s unique in the sense that it can really be disguised as anything,” Seldeen added. “It’s a powder, so we see it in cocaine, MDMA and right now in fake pills — it’s really replacing all other street opiates.”
While the rise of this synthetic opiate could be attributed to many things, there has been a significant uptick in these counterfeit pills since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“COVID-19 upset drug trafficking and that’s where fentanyl was able to come in and basically replace a lot of drugs, like MDMA on the black market that were white powders,” Seldeen said. “When COVID upset drug trafficking, fentanyl took its place and now fentanyl is probably here to stay because it’s just more economically viable because it’s produced in a lab, like meth would be, and it’s just easier to make than growing poppies.”
“It’s now so cheap and easy to obtain, especially compared to other drugs, that it has virtually taken over the drug landscape,” Seldeen added.
According to a release from the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, the pandemic “affected drug trafficking organizations operations’ production, packaging, transportation, distribution, and money laundering tactics.”
However, these drug trafficking organizations quickly adapted, and adapted in ways that led to a rise in fentanyl.
In a 2021 report to Congress, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs reported that these trends toward synthetic opioids like fentanyl occurred because it can be manufactured “virtually anywhere,” has low production costs, can be tailored to the psycho-effects desired by consumers, and its extreme potency allows for these organizations to “reap enormous profits while trafficking in small volumes that are difficult for authorities to detect.”
“A mere kilogram of fentanyl purchased online from black market vendors can be pressed into one million counterfeit pills and sold illegally for millions of dollars in the United States,” the report concludes.
In this report, the Bureau also emphasized the rise of e-commerce as a way to traffic and sell drugs.
“The perceived anonymity and convenience of the internet, including the use of non-indexed web sites and encrypted peer-to-peer messaging, allow criminals to complete illicit transactions easily, often using loosely regulated virtual currencies, while broadening their market base,” the report read.
Fentanyl in Eagle County
The national — and even global — rise of this synthetic fentanyl, and specifically fentanyl in counterfeit pills, is consistent with the seizures of the drug that GRANITE, the Gore Range Narcotics Interdiction Team, has made in recent years.
In 2021, GRANITE seized 70 pounds of fentanyl along the I-70 corridor running through Eagle County. The fentanyl was found exclusively in counterfeit oxycodone M30 pills. Detectives from GRANITE — who wished to remain anonymous due to the undercover nature of their jobs — said that nearly every other bust that the team makes has anywhere between 3 and 5 pounds of fentanyl.
Mountain Youth is hosting a free community event at Colorado Mountain College in Edwards on Thursday, April 14, starting with a dinner at 5:30 p.m. followed by a discussion at 6 p.m. featuring three community speakers. This forum seeks to destigmatize pill culture and fentanyl and address the “this doesn’t relate to me” attitude that exists. Attendees will also take away the best techniques for preventing drug misuse, overdose, and disease and learn how individuals at all levels can help combat our current public health crisis.
About the speakers
Amy Hermes is a licensed professional counselor and licensed addiction counselor who is trained to serve those struggling with both mental health and/or substance-related issues with a trauma informed approach.
Maggie Seldeen battled her own addictions for years and now wants to give back to the community that created her. Maggie combines her life experience and passion for social justice in dealing with persons who have a history of substance use.
Carole Bukovich lost her son to a pill laced with fentanyl in 2021. Carole is a beloved Eagle County resident who raised a family here and wants to share the message that the fentanyl crisis has reached our community. She wants to share her story so that no parent has to experience this loss.
“People also have pill presses where they’re making knock-off pills and they’re stamping them so they look like other prescription pills when in fact they’re either pure fentanyl or they have been cut with fentanyl in there,” the detectives said.
The proliferation of these pills has led to a rise of overdoses. According to data from the Vital Statistics Program of the Colorado Department of Health and the Environment, fentanyl has constituted a larger proportion of prescription drug overdose deaths since 2017. The drug was prevalent in 22% of drug overdose deaths in 2017, increased to 51% in 2019, and hit 67.6% in 2020.
In 2020, out of 582 drug overdose deaths — already up from 251 deaths in 2019 — 540 were fentanyl-related.
In 2021, these rates continued to rise. Based on current information, the Colorado Department of Health and the Environment reported that the synthetic opioid was involved in 890 overdose deaths — out of a total of 1,814 drug overdoses — last year.
These numbers are based on vital records and death certificate registration. With that, 2021 data is not yet final. The data closeout for the department is in May 2022. No death data for the first three months of 2022 is yet available as there is typically a three- to four-month lag in records, according to a representative from the state’s Vital Statistics Program.
The department also reported that Eagle County, along with the neighboring mountain resort counties of Garfield, Lake, Pitkin and Summit — experienced 10 opioid deaths per 100,000 in 2021, up from 6.6 in 2019. Eagle County had seven overdose deaths per 100,000 in 2021, according tto data from the Colorado Department of Health and the Environment.
“Even if you, as an individual, are not using substances that you believe could be laced with fentanyl, you’re probably one degree of separation away from someone who is really at risk and that’s why this matters,” Hermes said. “This is a community problem, this isn’t something that’s happening outside the bubble of the Vail Valley.”
I-70 is the major connector for Eagle County to the rest of the world, serving as the main artery for the transport and distribution of drugs. According to GRANITE detectives, while the interstate means that drugs travel through and past Eagle County, they also return to the county.
“A lot of the people that are trafficking narcotics, it’s pretty much all originating from Mexico, coming across the border and then their drug mules usually are making various stops in the country,” an official said. “It’s going all over the country, but primarily we’re finding a lot of the people we’re contacting are going directly to the Denver area and then it’s brought back up into Eagle County and surrounding communities.”
With this, there has been an increase in the use, distribution and existence of fentanyl in Eagle County.
“Fentanyl is most definitely in our communities, and its prevalence continues to grow. It is now found laced in other hard drugs lending to people being exposed to it unknowingly,” said Heidi McCollum, the district attorney for the 5th Judicial District — which spans Clear Creek, Eagle, Lake and Summit counties.
McCollum reported that Eagle County has seen an increase in fentanyl cases being prosecuted for both use and distribution in the last few years, mirroring trends across the state and country
“From a district attorney’s perspective, we’ve seen an increase across our four counties in fentanyl use, distribution and thus a rise in this dangerous drug’s impact to residents and their families,” she added.
McCollum added that there is no stereotype for whom the drug affects, but said that “our more rural, mountainous area seems to be prone for a continued rise in illicit drug use.”
A wider impact
The ability for fentanyl to fade into and be disguised as other drugs and pills — paired with its extreme lethality — not only significantly increases the risk for overdose, but it has the ability to impact a wider population.
“Before we started seeing fentanyl in all kinds of drugs it was really just impacting injection heroin users the most,” Seldeen said. “Now, it’s impacting anyone who chooses to use molly or cocaine on the weekends — it’s effecting a lot more people in general.”
For Seldeen, she said the biggest concern experts in the field are seeing is the risk for adolescents, particularly with the rise of party drugs and pill culture.
“Now it’s just really increasing this risk as we’re seeing fentanyl in everything. Now, Some young people just out for the weekend could potentially make a decision that would inadvertently end their lives and they would not even know what happened,” Seldeen said. “Youth and recreational users are not as aware of the dangers of fentanyl as regular opioid users are, so they are at a heightened risk for overdose.”
Currently, Seldeen said that almost everyone has been affected by addiction as well as an overdose at this point. Thus, getting rid of the stigmas around drug use and addiction will lead us down a non-obstructed path to recovery.
“Ninety-five percent of Americans use some form of mind-altering substance,” Seldeen said. “We believe that we need to take the stigma out of substance abuse to help people effectively.”
Amy Hermes, an Eagle County based professional counselor and addiction counselor, first became aware of the hidden problem of substance abuse when she worked for eight years at the local detention center as a case manager.
But recently, with fentanyl, and greater opioid addiction, “the game has changed,” Hermes said. “The issue has become acutely serious in a really short amount of time.”
Hermes became aware of the immense impact of fentanyl through her son, who is currently a senior at University of Colorado Boulder. Earlier this year, her son lost his third frat brother to an overdose.
“Kids are dying and it’s totally unintentional,” Hermes said. “Fentanyl and fentanyl overdoses are not discriminatory. It’s really senseless that kids are not being informed of really the dangers of just substance use, because fentanyl can pretty much be laced into pretty much any sort of substance now.”
Last August, Eagle County resident Carole Bukovich lost her 21-year-old son, Jake, to a fentanyl-related overdose. Bukovich experienced first-hand not only the devastating potential of fentanyl, but that the drug does not discriminate.
In many ways, Jake was like other kids that grow up in Eagle County. In others, he was incredibly unique, Bukovich said.
“Jake was a really smart kid, great in school — he took AP classes, he went to college as a sophomore. He was a star athlete, he definitely had a wild side and jumped off the biggest cliffs,” she said. “But he was just not that different — I mean he was different, he was very special, he was a positive kid, he was very loved by so many, he made such a big impact in this world in the time that he was here — but he could’ve been your kid.”
When Jake died in August 2021, he was 21 credits away from graduating from the University of Colorado Boulder with a degree in computer science.
“He had so much going for him and he made a choice. He took all that away and devastated so many lives,” Bukovich said.
“It’s just one small choice that ends a life. It’s not your kid being addicted to heroin, there’s not a lot of signs out there,” Bukovich said, before adding that the current party culture and lifestyle around drugs and prescription drugs — and the prevalence of fentanyl in these drugs — has changed the game.
“It’s an extreme danger and it’s so dangerous that one bad choice is all it takes to not wake up and see another day,” she said. “We all make choices every day and we all make bad choices, bad choices that 99% of the time you can fix. (With fentanyl), this is a choice to take a pill that means you might not wake up tomorrow and you can’t take that back.”
For Bukovich, the message Jake would have wanted her to share is clear.
“Kids think they’re invincible — I know Jake did, and if he was here he would beg you to not make that choice,” Bukovich said. “If he could be here today, he would tell you not to take that chance — don’t do it, you may not get another chance.”