Parents, elected officials, law enforcement sound alarm on skyrocketing fentanyl deaths

Tommy Farmer/Tennessee Bureau of Investigation via AP
These pills were made to look like Oxycodone, but they’re actually an illicit form of the potent painkiller fentanyl. A surge in police seizures of illicit fentanyl parallels a rise in overdose deaths.

Braden Burks was a 24-year-old sports buff who live-texted with his dad during every game they watched together. He went to get pedicures with his mother. He took his grandmother to lunch and wrote long letters to kids in Africa he supported through his church.

Burks, of Denver, also had chronic trouble sleeping — he took melatonin and used lavender oil and weighted blankets. A friend he trusted gave him a pill — he was told it was a pain medication. His family thinks Burks took it because he thought it would help him sleep better.

He went to bed on Jan. 10, 2019, and never woke up.  The pill contained fentanyl.

“When looking at the fentanyl crisis, the media paints a picture of homeless people laying on the street unconscious. This isn’t the only population affected by this and people tend to tune out when they see this,” said Tami Gottsegen, Burks’ mother, who spoke to reporters on Thursday about the skyrocketing Colorado deaths attributed to the drug. “We need to paint a clearer picture.”

Spurred on by an alarming increase in fentanyl poisoning and overdose fatalities across Colorado, Attorney General Phil Weiser, law enforcement and a handful of prosecutors from Grand Junction to Boulder are calling on lawmakers to provide more money to crack down on people selling this drug — often under the guise of something else. 

Many of the people currently dying of fentanyl overdoses or poisonings don’t believe at the time they are taking fentanyl — they think they’re buying a Percocet or an Oxycodone or even a Xanax. 

“Fentanyl is killing our kids,” said Adams and Broomfield County District Attorney Brian Mason. “The drug cartels are preying upon unsuspecting children by lacing drugs with fentanyl, and kids are dying.”

Mason said members of his drug task force can’t test fentanyl in the field anymore because it’s so virulent that it puts law enforcement officials at risk. Just a few weeks ago, a member of the task force accidentally inhaled some during an investigation and had to take narcan.

Between 2019 and 2020, the number of fentanyl deaths doubled in Colorado. In El Paso County, for example, there were four deaths in 2019. This year, they are expecting more than 100. 

More than 1,800 Coloradans have died of an overdose so far this year, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment.

“This is a crisis 25 years in the making. It started in a boardroom pushing out prescription pills, it’s now being replaced increasingly by fentanyl and those deadly pills are marketed to look like the old prescription pills but they’re not,” Weiser said.

Nationwide, there were more deaths from overdoses than car crashes and gun violence deaths for the first time.

Weiser and the prosecutors are asking lawmakers for resources to raise alarm bells and to crack down on  those who are pushing these drugs out to communities — something that has already received a friendly reception by members of both parties.

“We must devote additional resources to educating people about the immediate dangers of fentanyl possession in the community,” said Rep. Kevin Priola, a Republican state senator from Adams County. “Hopefully some of this money will go out to youth in junior and senior high school about how one pill can kill.”

On the criminal side, investigations into drug cartels are complicated and more nuanced than a regular probe into a shooting or a stabbing death, prosecutors say.

Often, the person taking the pill is unaware there was fentanyl inside the pill, and oftentimes the person who gave them the pill is also unaware of the fentanyl content.

“A typical case example we have is, boyfriend gives it to girlfriend, they each take a pill, they go to sleep, the girlfriend never wakes up,” said Boulder District Attorney Michael Dougherty. “Boyfriend takes the same pill not knowing fentanyl was inside of it but he is lucky to have survived. Then you have to trace it back, who gave the pills to them in the first place? Did that person know it was laced to fentanyl?”

Dougherty said to trace it back, they usually need to look at loads of electronic devices and communication, which takes time and resources.

“Those cases at times can present difficult obstacles but we have to overcome them so those individuals can be held responsible,” he said. “I really appreciate our allies in the legislature for committing to give law enforcement more resources to work these cases to completion.”

Dougherty told a room full of adults at Thursday’s press conference to think back to what it was like being a young person.

“We were all young once,” he said. “And if you reflect upon how many times you may have taken a sip of a drink that a friend gave you. Think of all the parties you were at when you were a teenager or in your young 20s, and a friend said, ‘take a sip of this,’ or ‘try this.’ That sip can kill people today.”