As Colorado fentanyl deaths continue to rise, here’s the DEA’s new approach to combat the problem

At least 1,089 people died from fentanyl poisoning in 2023, up 18.4% from the year before, preliminary data shows

As many as 7 in 10 counterfeit pills tested in 2023 contained a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl, or roughly the amount that fits on the tips of a pencil, national DEA laboratory testing showed. (Photo courtesy of Rocky Mountain Field Division of the Drug Enforcement Administration)

Fentanyl-related overdose deaths hit a new high in 2023 as law enforcement seized record amounts of the synthetic opioid, official data shows.

At least 1,089 people died from fentanyl poisoning last year, up 18.4% from 920 the year before, according to preliminary data released by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

A surge that started five years ago has continued, with the number of fentanyl-related deaths increasing more than 900% from the 102 recorded in 2018, data from the health department’s Center for Health and Environmental Data shows.

Denver recorded more deaths in 2023 than any other county with 321, compared with Adams (136), Arapahoe (133), Jefferson (124) and El Paso (116).

The health department anticipates releasing final data in June.

So far this year, 141 fatalities have been reported to the CDPHE, however the data is typically lagging by at least three months. Denver again leads with 37 deaths from fentanyl.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s records tell a similar story about Colorado. In 2023, 1,187 fatalities were registered provisionally in the “other synthetic narcotics” category, which mainly comprises fentanyl. Unlike the state agency, the CDC said it does not have an exact number of fentanyl deaths.

The numbers for 2023 mark a 22.2% rise from the previous year and a 785% surge since 2018, according to the CDC database.

“We are facing more than just an opioid crisis in the U.S”, said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health. “Stimulants like methamphetamine, which is more prevalent in use in the Western U.S., are now increasingly being contaminated or used together with fentanyl.”

As fentanyl deaths in Colorado soared, the Drug Enforcement Administration seizures of the drug here also spiked. In 2023, the agency confiscated a record 2.61 million pills in Colorado, up from 1.9 million in 2022 and 565,200 in 2021. This year, the DEA Rocky Mountain Field Division is on pace to beat those numbers, after seizing 1.4 million pills, between January and March, more than half of the amount seized last year.

News of the rising death toll comes days after the DEA announced a new strategy to combat fentanyl in the Rocky Mountain region. Earlier this month around 200 money service businesses and financial institutions that aid in sending money to people in other countries were asked to cooperate in an investigation into the cash flowing to support the illicit opioid market.

The probe, called Operation “Cash Out,” was launched in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and Montana by the DEA, IRS and the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, the DEA said in a news release.

U.S. authorities say fentanyl constitutes a multi-billion-dollar enterprise for Mexican cartels such as Sinaloa and Jalisco, which operate near the U.S. border.

“The only thing they care about is their money. This interagency operation intends to target the networks and seize their assets through building stronger relationships with the private sector financial community,” said David Olesky, acting special agent in charge for DEA’s Rocky Mountain Field Division, in the release.

In recent years, new legislationofficial investigations and initiatives from families and schools have emerged to prevent and combat the rising number of fentanyl-related deaths in Colorado, a bill signed into law on April 22 making it legal for students and staff at public and charter schools to carry and administer opioid overdose reversal drugs such as naloxone.

“The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is committed to doing all we can to prevent drug overdoses, and one of our current strategies is to increase access to naloxone,” said the state agency in a statement.

Ernesto Cabral/ColoradoSun

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