One small way to cut down on fentanyl overdoses in Colorado? Target the dealers

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Fentayl-laced fake oxycodone pills collected during an investigation.

U.S. Attorney Cole Finegan said he doesn’t have all of the solutions to stop the rising number of fentanyl overdoses in Colorado, but he does have one powerful tool: trying to disrupt the supply chain.

There have been about a half dozen federal prosecutions since October 2020 against fentanyl distributors. 

Bruce Holder, a 55-year-old Grand Junction man was convicted in 2021 after distributing pills that appeared to be 30 mg Oxycodone, but were spiked with fentanyl. A Fort Collins man was sentenced to 175 months in federal prison last week for distributing fentanyl.

“We have the ability to go after the people that are making and distributing these drugs that are killing our children and are killing our fellow citizens,” Finegan said. “We’re going to do everything in our power to go after the people who make this drug and the people who distribute this drug.”

Finegan spoke to reporters on Friday just a few days after five people collapsed and died in a Commerce City apartment of fentanyl overdoses. He said he recently lost a family friend to an overdose, as well — a young man who was a close childhood friend of his son’s.

“It’s so dramatic and startling when it’s somebody you know because there are all these statistics,” he said. “While every person’s death matters, there is something about knowing somebody when they grew up, knowing them as a child and then seeing their parents.”

The number of fentanyl fatalities in Colorado is rising faster than in every other state, except Alaska. In 2021, illegal fentanyl killed 709 people in Colorado — which is 645 more people than in 2015, according to CDC data from Families Against Fentanyl in a report released this week. 

Law enforcement has seen more fentanyl traveling on state highways than ever before. There was a 403 percent increase in the number of pounds seized of fentanyl between 2017 and 2021 on Colorado’s highways.

Colorado had more drug seizures, per pound, from 2017 through 2021 than any other state in the country — the second state was California.

“The pandemic has not slowed the massive amount of narcotics that are coming into our state every day to be distributed to cities all over Colorado,” said Capt. Bill Barkley of the Colorado State Patrol, in a statement. “We are fighting this war on drugs every day in an attempt to dismantle drug trafficking organizations.”

State prosecutors, too, are increasingly attempting to file murder and manslaughter charges against known fentanyl dealers, including a recent case in Lafayette. Boulder District Attorney Michael Dougherty filed manslaughter charges against a Longmont man who sold counterfeit opioid pills to a couple. The woman died of a fentanyl overdose. 

Christie Donner, who runs the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, said she understands taking drug dealers out — but unless there are broader policy discussions about “harm reduction strategies” that address addiction and safe drug use, it can be like playing a game of whack-a-mole.

“I get we need to be very aggressive in this moment because it’s very serious what’s happening,” Donner said. “But using the rhetoric and strategies that didn’t work before isn’t going to help us now … Let’s try and find strategies that keep people alive.”