Colorado law enforcement officials said Wednesday that millions of lives may have been saved after several months of undercover investigation into those suspected of distributing illegal fentanyl pills.
About 170,000 pills were seized in April from a vehicle outside an apartment complex in Aurora. In an unrelated traffic stop of a vehicle headed toward Tulsa, Oklahoma, on I-70 in February, 30,000 fentanyl pills were collected.
These cases were combined, and eight people were ultimately indicted in June from both cases following undercover busts and wiretaps that happened between December 2021 and May.
Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney John Kellner said at a press conference in the south Denver suburb of Centennial on Wednesday that across both cases in addition to the 200,000 fentanyl pills, officials found four guns, 9.4 pounds of heroin, 1 kilogram of cocaine and $60,000 in stolen merchandise.
The investigation that turned into a joint wiretap probe with the 18th Judicial District, DEA, Arapahoe County and Denver police began in December 2021, Kellner said. As of March 31 in Colorado, a total of about 1.1 million fentanyl pills have been collected – although DEA Special Agent Brian Besser said he believes that number has doubled since three months ago.
It’s hard to keep the calculations updated in real time as the pills come in, he added. Law enforcement officials reported last month that more than 2 million dosage units of fentanyl were removed from Colorado communities so far this year.
“Bulk fentanyl quantities like this hold the caliber of weapons of mass destruction-type concern,” Besser said Wednesday. “When we take into consideration the worst possible outcomes of this poison being pushed out in mass in our communities, I’ve never seen anything like this, ever.
“No one is immune from this drug crisis. It is in your neighborhood, it is saturated everywhere.”
In 2021, illegal fentanyl killed 709 people in Colorado, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2015, it killed 64 people in the state.
The illicit drug has been seen on state highways more than ever before. There was a 403 percent increase in the number of pounds seized of fentanyl between 2017 and last year on Colorado’s highways. Besser said the I-70 and I-25 corridors are where the deadly drugs head East while money heads South.
Colorado had more drug seizures, per pound, from 2017 through 2021 than any other state in the country — the second state was California. Federal and local law enforcement agencies say the drugs come into the state from Mexico.
Recently passed legislation is working to change things, however.
Gov. Jared Polis signed Colorado's new “fentanyl accountability” bill at a ceremony at the state Capitol in May – the new law provides stricter criminal penalties for the possession of small amounts of fentanyl and other drugs laced with it.
“Every single bust, and I hate to use that term, is making a substantive community impact on the life-saving front,” Besser said. “If it saves one life, for me, it was worth the whole process.”
Fentanyl pills are extremely cheap right now, officials said Wednesday. The drugs can go for as little as $1 and are disguised in flavors like strawberry and raspberry. Drug dealers are now resorting to innovative methods to flood the market with fentanyl-related substances so they can have maximum appeal to unsuspecting users, Besser said.
Fentanyl is being mixed with heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and illegally produced marijuana. The DEA estimates that 1 kilogram of fentanyl, or 2.2 pounds, can kill up to 500,000 people if lethal doses are ingested.
Fentanyl pills collected in the April and February seizures had the potential to kill as many as 100,000 people in Colorado, Besser said. There are about 6 million people living in Colorado.
Editor's Note: A previous version of the story said the amount of fentanyl seized could kill as many as 25 million people. That number was nationwide.
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