COLORADO — Those purchasing prescription drugs over the internet and on the streets are at high risk of getting more than they bargained for, officials are warning Coloradoans: a lethal dose of the drug fentanyl marketed under brand names like Xanax and Oxycodone.
Last week officials seized hundreds of thousands of dollars of fentanyl pills, Denver’s Channel 7 reported Feb. 21. One portion, the size of a grain of sand embedded in the pills, is more than enough to kill an adult. Federal officials arrested 24 individuals they believe to be members of a Mexican drug trafficking ring operating out of Denver and Aurora.
In January, members of the Northern Colorado Drug Force in Ft. Collins began working a case involving eight fentanyl overdoses, two of them fatal. The drugs were sold as Oxycontin but contained minute traces of fentanyl. A 29-year-old male and a 17-year-old female died after ingesting the pills.
The Channel 7 article quotes task force Commander Joe Shell hammer, who called the mass importation of fentanyl into Colorado “a full-blown crisis.” Shellhammer said black market operations in Mexico are now putting fentanyl into “everything,” including, Oxycontin pills, Percocet, powdered cocaine, heroin, also other drugs.
One drug policy reform activist estimated that it takes three days to mix up a batch of fentanyl in one of these black laboratories. The drug is especially lucrative for those selling the pills because fentanyl is highly addictive. Chemical manufacture also eliminates the middleman growing product for the cartels from the drug production equation.
The lead prosecutor in the death of one fentanyl overdose victim warned that unless prescriptions are obtained from a doctor, no one knows what is in the medications they are buying from dealers.
Shellhammer said his unit is working nonstop to stem the crisis but noted he is very concerned about where it will all end. Those working to rehabilitate drug addicts are equally concerned and one Colorado psychologist offers his thoughts on the crisis and how to help stem it.
A psychologist speaks on
Hunter Kennedy is the executive director of Footprints to Recovery in Colorado (https://footprintstorecovery.com/addiction-treatment-locations/colorado/), an addictions treatment facility. Kennedy holds a Doctorate in psychology, a master’s degree in counseling, a bachelor’s degree in psychology and an associate degree in business. His recovery center is located in Centennial.
During a telephone interview Feb. 20, Kennedy called the fentanyl crisis “One of the greatest up and coming concerns in Colorado — there is going to be an epidemic.” He gave a history of the drug and provided further details about its potency and manufacture.
A synthetic opioid, fentanyl was first introduced as an anesthetic in the 1960s. It was used to treat chronic pain patients, mainly those suffering from end-stage cancer, who had built up a tolerance to other painkillers. Kennedy noted that the drug was soon found to be “wickedly addictive”; patients using fentanyl patches found they could not come off of them.
Fentanyl is manufactured in laboratories not only in Mexico, but also in China, and the drug is available online, Kennedy explained. The manufactured drug usually comes in brick form. What is worth $2,000 to $3,000 in manufacturing costs has a street value of $2 million per five-pound brick, he said.
“One to two milligrams can be deadly, so [if they are ingesting] two to three milligrams, this is why people are overdosing and dying,” Kennedy observed. “A baker’s pinch is enough to end up in cardiac arrest because it depresses the pulmonary system,” stopping the heart and breathing processes.
Street names for the drugs are Apache, China Girl, Chinatown, Dance Fever, Tango and Cash and He-man, among others. “They’re glorifying it,” Kennedy commented. “It’s not regulated — people don’t know what they are buying.”
Drug dealers can maximize their profits four to six times over “by lacing it into other things and turbocharging it,” Kennedy noted. “Grey death,” a rock form of opioid has been surfacing recently and this form of fentanyl penetrates through the skin. “Touch it and you overdose,” Kennedy said.
The Center for Disease Control is aware of the problem and has warned officers not to search for fentanyl coming into the country for fear of contamination. Kennedy estimates that deaths reported from opioid abuse at 30,000 two years ago are likely in the 50,000 range today and predicts the real number of deaths today is 80,000-100,000 annually.
The solution? Rehabilitation and reintegration into society once sobriety is achieved. To achieve that Kennedy uses an all-embracing approach, which will be explained in Part 2 in next week’s paper.