DENVER — Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid designed to treat severe pain. The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) estimates it is 100 times more potent than morphine.
Illicit fentanyl is being mixed in counterfeit prescription pills, killing Coloradans at an alarming rate. Following a drug bust in Colorado this week where 110,000 counterfeit pills cut with fentanyl were seized, one Front Range District Attorney is calling for revised laws surrounding the drug.
DEA Denver Field Division Acting Special Agent in Charge David Olesky said a year ago, a large seizure would have been anywhere from 5,000-10,000 counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl. “Last year, or fiscal year '21 for DEA, we seized 9.5 million pills. That is the equivalent of both fiscal year '19 and fiscal year '20 combined," said Olesky.
DEA testing revealed two out of every five counterfeit pills usually seized during these operations contain fatal doses of fentanyl. So, the 110,000 pills taken off the streets during this investigation potentially saved 40,000 lives, according to Olesky.
The state health department website reports fentanyl related overdoses have more than doubled each of the last three years, topping out last year at 540 deaths. As of August 2021, there have been 612 drug overdose deaths involving fentanyl.
“Colorado’s drug laws, especially when it comes to fentanyl, are behind the times. Right now, it’s four grams of fentanyl is a drug misdemeanor level one, to have that in your possession. Now, what does it take to kill somebody? Two milligrams. Think about that NutraSweet packet that you put in your coffee every morning. Just two little grains of that can kill somebody. So, what we allow people to carry around as a misdemeanor is actually enough to kill over a thousand people. And that allows drug distributors to potentially walk around with too much of this, and then face almost no consequences," said the District Attorney for the 18th Judicial District, John Kellner.
Kellner is referencing a Colorado law that went into effect in March of 2020. The Offense Level for Controlled Substance Possession legislation, which was HB19-1263, made the possession of four grams or less of controlled substances listed in Schedule I or II a misdemeanor charge, rather than a felony. Fentanyl is a Schedule II controlled substance.
The law does not apply to certain drugs, like those in the categories of bath salts or date rape drugs.
“We need to have a sentence enhancer, much like the federal government has, for drug distribution causing death. And what that would do, is it would raise the penalty for the people who peddle this poison so that when they do this and somebody dies, they are going to prison for a long time. Because the message needs to be sent that we will not tolerate this in Colorado," said Kellner.
On July 25 of this year, two young lives were taken by fentanyl. Matt Riviere said his sons, Andrew and Stephen, lived together in a Colorado Springs apartment. Andrew was 21 years old and Stephen was 19, and the two brothers were always close. “I just really miss my kids, especially as the holidays approach," said Riviere.
Riviere said his sons took what they thought was an oxycodone, but was actually a counterfeit pill containing fentanyl. The two died side-by-side in their apartment, according to Riviere. “I don't look at my boys as they overdosed. They got poisoned. And these drug dealers, manufacturers, should be responsible for their deaths. They should be charged with murder," said Riviere.
Riviere shared his son's stories, hoping to save other lives, and potentially change a law. “These kids just don't know what they're doing. In some ways, they're innocent. They're trying something, they're making bad choices. But it's one and done... It's a life that will never be brought back. And it's going to be a life that's going to be missed for eternity," said Riviere.
Proponents of the legislation have said it protects non-violent drug offenders from harsh punishments, giving them a better chance at getting their lives back on track.