Briefline

As fentanyl kills more Coloradans, prosecutors call for stricter penalties

By: - December 16, 2021 1:50 pm
flower chain with names of people lost to overdose

Cards bearing the names of people lost to drug overdose are strung together with flowers outside the Harm Reduction Action Center in Denver on Aug. 31, 2021. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

An assortment of Colorado’s top prosecutors and state lawmakers, along with the mother of a young man who died after taking pills containing fentanyl, are calling for stricter penalties for drug dealers peddling the powerful synthetic opioid.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment predicts the number of drug overdose deaths in the state this year will not only break last year’s record but will also double the toll of 2018, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said at a Thursday news conference.

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In 2020, Colorado lost 1,477 people to drug overdoses. Around 540 of those deaths were associated with fentanyl, which is increasingly present in street drugs including counterfeit pills, cocaine, meth and heroin. The number of fentanyl-associated deaths more than doubled from 2019 to 2020.

Fentanyl is often added to substances sold as prescription pills, heroin and other drugs to increase their potency and increase profit margins for dealers. A lethal dose of fentanyl is 2 milligrams or sometimes less.

Phil Weiser
Attorney General Phil Weiser speaks at a news conference about fentanyl overdose deaths on Dec. 16, 2021, at the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center in Denver. (Screenshot via Colorado Attorney General Facebook page)

During the news conference — held at the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center in Denver and streamed on Facebook — Tami Gottsegen spoke about her son, Braden, whom she lost to an opioid overdose in 2019. She believes Braden thought the counterfeit pill that killed him might have helped with his chronic insomnia.

Gottsegen said it would be more accurate to describe Braden’s death as a “poisoning” than an overdose. The young man who allegedly sold Braden a pill containing fentanyl is serving time in federal prison, Gottsegen said, but wasn’t prosecuted in Colorado.

State Sens. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, and Kevin Priola, a Brighton Republican, are working with Weiser’s office on legislation to increase state funding for law enforcement agencies. The goal: breaking up drug trafficking organizations that bring fentanyl into Colorado. Pettersen and Priola also want to continue their previous work to increase access to substance use treatment, they said.

Weiser wants the Colorado General Assembly to increase penalties for people who deliberately sell drugs containing fentanyl for unsuspecting consumers.

“Four grams of fentanyl is not the same as four grams of cocaine or any other illegal drug,” Weiser said in a Thursday statement after the news conference. “The legislature should re-evaluate whether a felony charge is appropriate for possessing this amount of fentanyl.”

Fentanyl testing strips, which allow people to test illicit substances for fentanyl, are not widely available for free in Colorado despite their potential to save lives. However, harm reduction organizations offer free resources, including fentanyl strips, for people with substance use disorders.

  • Access Point Colorado offers free naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal drug, and fentanyl test strips at various locations in Denver, Pueblo, Fort Collins and Grand Junction.
  • Harm Reduction Action Center, located at 112 E. 8th Ave. in Denver, offers free fentanyl test strips to people who inject drugs. Depending on supply, HRAC sometimes distributes test strips to the broader public. Call 303-572-7800 to learn about available resources.
  • The San Luis Valley Health Access Risk Reduction Project, located at 1123 West Ave. in Alamosa, offers clean syringes, emergency overdose response training, free naloxone and more. Email [email protected] for information.

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Faith Miller
Faith Miller

Reporter Faith Miller covers the Colorado Legislature, immigration and other stories for Colorado Newsline.

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