Law enforcement leaders convene Colorado’s first ever fentanyl summit as drug seizures hit all-time high

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Col. Matthew C. Packard, chief of the Colorado State Patrol, talks during a press conference Wednesday, June 1, 2022, at Patrol headquarters in Golden about a sharp rise in fentanyl seizures in the state.

A cadre of law enforcement leaders, district attorneys and elected officials will gather in Denver on Thursday to kick off the state’s first-ever summit focused on the growing fentanyl crisis. 

The two-day event, which is closed to the public and press, will feature training sessions on all aspects of enforcement—from drug seizures to prosecution, according to organizers. Families of overdose victims will also speak. 

Ahead of the event, law enforcement agencies held a joint press conference to announce that fentanyl busts in the state are at an all-time high this year. Officers have already taken a higher volume of the drug off Colorado streets than they did in all of 2021, according to data compiled by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.  

The total haul — about 225 pounds so far — is equivalent to more than 2 million doses of the deadly drug. 

“This is in quite literally every neighborhood, every community across our state,” said Colorado State Patrol Col. Matthew Packard. “Because it’s so pervasive, this needs to be a true system wide approach to combat this problem.” 

Packard said he and other law enforcement leaders will step up the number of seizures, and he called on everyday residents to get involved in the fight.

“If you are addicted to fentanyl or an opioid or drugs or someone that you love or care about is addicted to this drug, you have no more wiggle room,” he said. “The only way we’re going to be successful in suppressing this issue is if it is truly every single one of us that is engaged in this fight.”

Fentanyl has emerged as a top public safety concern for law enforcement agencies around the state and country in recent years. The synthetic opiate is deadly even in small amounts, killing an estimated 150 people a day across the country. 

In Colorado, more than 900 people overdosed on the drug last year, according to Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area data.

Public health experts recommend people who use street drugs carry naloxone, which can counteract overdoses. Widely-available testing kits can also help detect the presence of fentanyl in many drugs. People or families who are struggling with addiction should also reach out to access mental health care.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
U.S. Attorney Cole Finegan talks during a press conference Wednesday, June 1, 2022, at Colorado State Patrol headquarters in Golden about a sharp rise in fentanyl seizures and prosecutions in the state.

The rules around fentanyl crackdowns have also been among the most hotly debated issues facing state lawmakers. During their latest session, legislators passed a wide-ranging law that allows police and prosecutors to charge people with felonies for possessing more than one gram of the drug. 

Gov. Jared Polis signed the legislation into law last month, and it will go into effect July 1. 

Prior to the new policy, people in Colorado would only be charged with felony possession if they had more than four grams of a substance containing fentanyl. That was the threshold set for numerous drugs under a 2019 law that aimed to reduce the incarceration of nonviolent drug users.

Part of this week’s summit will be devoted to discussing the new law’s rollout, Packard said.

“I think it puts us in a better position to go after the folks bringing this drug in the state,” he said. “But we’re also focused on going after bigger loads.”

Prosecuting fentanyl dealers has emerged as a top priority for Cole Finegan, the United States Attorney for the District of Colorado. His office obtained 50 federal indictments on fentanyl-related crimes in 2021. 

That’s up from 21 in 2020 and 13 in 2019, Finegan said, speaking ahead of the summit.

“The increase is even more striking when you compare it to indictments on heroin related crimes, which stayed relatively stable over the same three years,” he said.

Last year, Finegan’s office obtained Colorado’s first federal conviction against a drug dealer for causing an overdose death after selling fentanyl-laced pills. His office has prosecuted more than a dozen similar cases since then, and the number will likely continue to grow, Finegan said. 

District attorneys from across Colorado will also attend the summit, where Denver’s and Colorado Springs’ mayors will also outline city-level efforts to combat the crisis. It’s expected to last through Friday afternoon at the Denver Art Museum.