By Randi Pierce | Staff Writer
During an arrest last week, the Archuleta County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) retrieved pills that are presumed to be fentanyl — something Archuleta County Sheriff Mike Le Roux indicated is happening with increased frequency.
“Fentanyl,” according to an ACSO press release, “is a synthetic opioid that is 50 times more potent than heroin. Just two milligrams of fentanyl, or the amount that could fit on the tip of a pencil, is considered a potentially lethal dose.”
“Fentanyl is present in this community,” he said. “Know what it is. Educate yourself on what it can do.”
The ACSO reported that, in the six-month span from May to October 2022, it had seized 70 grams of methamphetamines, 1.1 grams of heroin and 131 grams (131,000 milligrams) of fentanyl.
The press release notes that 2 mg of fentanyl is a potentially lethal dose, meaning 131 grams potentially equates to 65,500 lethal doses.
By the end of 2022, according to Le Roux, additional quantities had been seized, likely bringing the amount of fentanyl seized to about 140 grams.
A press release from the agency notes the illegal substances were seized by patrol deputies and detectives during routine traffic stops, warrant arrest, theft/burglary investigations, and the execution of search warrants on dwellings and vehicles.
Le Roux explained that it’s hard to answer questions about the state of illicit substances in the area categorically, but indicated the quantity of narcotics the ACSO has seized leads the agency to flag it as a concern locally.
“We know it’s out there. You read about it, you hear about it anecdotally, but until such time you can … actually make a seizure in some way, shape or form … It’s starting to quantify,” he said, noting that’s something the ACSO is working to do.
He also noted fentanyl is more prevalent than it has been in the last couple of years and indicated the agency is working to understand the factors contributing to the increase, included increased personal use and the area’s rural location away from interstates and agencies with more resources committed to drug interdiction.
“It’s deadly stuff,” he said, adding, “It’s becoming more and more available, and it’s more out there, for sure.”
‘One Pill Can Kill’
Because of the risk of fentanyl, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has launched the ‘One Pill Can Kill’ campaign to provide information on the substance and its dangers — a resource Le Roux points people toward.
The ACSO press release notes that fentanyl “remains the deadliest drug threat facing this nation. In 2021, a record number of Americans died from a drug poisoning or overdose, with approximately sixty-six percent of those deaths being attributed to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.”
That risk has grown to include rainbow fentanyl.
“Drug traffickers have expanded their inventory to sell fentanyl in a variety of bright colors, shapes, and sizes,” the press release notes. “Rainbow fentanyl was first reported to DEA in February 2022, and has subsequently been seized in 21 states.”
According to the DEA’s website, the DEA has seized more than 4.5 million fentanyl pills and more than 800 pounds of fentanyl powder in 2023.
“Fentanyl is the single deadliest drug threat our nation has ever encountered,” said Administrator Anne Milgram, according to the DEA’s website. “Fentanyl is everywhere. From large metropolitan areas to rural America, no community is safe from this poison. We must take every opportunity to spread the word to prevent fentanyl-related overdose death and poisonings from claiming scores of American lives every day.”
“Criminal drug networks are mass-producing fake pills and falsely marketing them as legitimate prescription pills to deceive the American public,” the DEA’s “One Pill Can Kill” Website states.
It notes, “Fake pills are easy to purchase, widely available, often contain fentanyl or methamphetamine, and can be deadly.”
The website further notes, “Fake prescription pills are easily accessible and often sold on social media and e-commerce platforms, making them available to anyone with a smartphone, including minors.”
According to the agency, many fake pills are made to look like prescription drugs such as oxycodone (Oxycontin®, Percocet®), hydrocodone (Vicodin®), and alprazolam (Xanax®); or stimulants like amphetamines (Adderall®).
For more information, visit https://www.dea.gov/onepill.
A rise in overdose deaths
Archuleta County Coroner Brandon Bishop indicated there has been an increase in overdose deaths in recent years.
According to Bishop, there were no overdoses found at autopsy in 2020. In 2021, two overdoses were found at autopsy. In 2022, there were five overdoses found at autopsy.
Those overdose deaths, Bishop explained, include a variety of causes including fentanyl, alcohol, hydromorphone, cocaine and methamphetamine.
Le Roux explained part of the challenge is that drug interdiction is difficult, particularly for smaller agencies.
“Drug interdiction is such a labor-intensive, resource-driven activity,” he said. “Finding a quantity of illicit narcotics in a vehicle, for example, is a lot harder than 600 or 1,000 marijuana plants. … Interdiction work, whilst we obviously as an agency do what we can to intercept that stuff, that requires a skill set that needs dedicated resources for a period of time.”
Drug-interdiction actions, he noted, “are significantly difficult in the current climate that we have.”
He also suggested part of the process is tracking and quantifying the problem over time.
“We obviously welcome any information we can get regarding any illegal narcotic activity within the county,” he said.
Le Roux suggested anyone with information on illegal narcotics activity call Archuleta County Combined Dispatch at (970) 731-2160.
“Help us help you get it off the streets,” he said.
Le Roux explained the ACSO has applied for a grant that would, in part, allow the agency to purchase a handheld narcotics analyzer that would increase officer safety and efficiency by providing “presumptive evidence” and expediting the agency’s process since the state’s lab is backed up.
Le Roux acknowledged the Colorado State Patrol has a drug interdiction team, and there is a drug task force based out of La Plata County that Archuleta County can use to leverage resources in certain circumstances.
Le Roux also noted that the Fentanyl Accountability And Prevention Act creates a challenge because, for example, it makes the possession of under 1 gram of a compound that contains fentanyl and other synthetic opioids a misdemeanor, with the penalties going up from there.
But, he pointed out, the DEA notes that 2 mg is a potentially lethal dose.
“That’s 500 lethal doses in 1 gram of fentanyl, right? So when you start doing the math, that is, there’s a miss, right?” he posed.
He also indicated that, until a lab tests a pill, the amount of the dangerous substance in a pill is unknown.
In a separate interview, Sixth Judicial District Attorney Christian Champagne also acknowledged the reform bill was a “giant” political fight.
The bill, according to its legislative declaration, recognizes that the “illegal distribution of synthetic opiates, including fentanyl, carfentanil, benzimidazole opiate, and analogs thereof, presents a serious health risk in Colorado and across the country” and that the “increase in the number of overdose deaths in Colorado demands a comprehensive response by communities and elected officials, designed to reduce the risks of harm to all people and recalibrate the criminal justice system’s response to illegal distribution of these dangerous drugs.”
It further notes, “Colorado has not adequately funded behavioral health interventions, treatment, overdose prevention, and other supportive services that research demonstrates reduce the risk of harm and the recovery of people suffering from a behavioral health disorder.”
The bill indicates the state’s priority is the “prosecution of drug dealers who manufacture, distribute, dispense, or sell fentanyl, carfentanil, benzimidazole opiate, and analogs thereof, not the prosecution of low-level drug possessors.”
For more on the act, which was signed into law in May of 2022, visit https://leg.colorado.gov/bills/hb22-1326.