Arapahoe County Coroner Dr. Kelly Lear-Kaul sees the fallout from those statistics all the time. Her county’s drug overdose rate has doubled from fifteen years ago, with about three quarters of the cases involving prescription painkillers like Oxycodone, an opioid medication better known by names like Percocet or OxyContin.
Lear-Kaul saw 100 drug overdose deaths in the county last year, she says while showing a visitor her autopsy room. Two bodies on gurneys await an exam to determine how they died.
“They fill up the gurneys," she says, and the families that come to identify the bodies have varied reactions -- some are surprised.
“They’ll say ‘oh yeah, he’s been groggy and I know he took too many or he kept going back to his pill bottle," Lear-Kaul says. "So it’s not a surprise for a lot of people. For some it is, definitely.”
Others are in denial, or simply had no clue as to what was going on -- like the case of one man with a history of chronic pain.
“He was not getting [the drugs] from a doctor, he was getting them from another person who was providing them and his family didn’t know that," she says. "It was a total surprise.”
“It’s a pretty grim tally," said Tamara Keeney, a policy analyst at the Colorado Health Institute. Her organization published the new analysis of the state’s drug-related deaths. “The big surprise for me really came when we mapped the data.”
As the time-lapse map using CDC data from 2002-2014 below shows, "no county in the state gets any lighter."