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Meth contamination at Colorado libraries puts spotlight on 'the silent epidemic'

Hundreds of Coloradans die from a methamphetamine overdose each year
Englewood library
Posted at 1:56 PM, Feb 11, 2023

DENVER — The closure of several Colorado librariesdue to meth contamination has put the spotlight back on the methamphetamine epidemic, which is sometimes called “the silent epidemic.”

“People sometimes talk about it as the epidemic that folks don't look at,” said Dr. Joseph Sakai, an addiction psychiatrist and associate professor at the University of Colorado Department of Psychiatry on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus.

Sakai says given the challenges associated with meth addiction, he is not surprised it would lead to users using in public spaces.

"If you stop for a moment and stand in the shoes of folks who are dealing with severe methamphetamine use disorder, many folks end up not really having stable housing, not having employment, sort of trying to find safe places to be able to exist," said Sakai. "Using in something like a public space to me is not totally surprising. And, you know, it's just sort of the nature of what happens in this sort of downward spiral that folks can go through when dealing with this."

Like the opioid epidemic, which has received much of the focus in recent years, the meth epidemic has claimed the lives of thousands of people in Colorado.

According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, 749 people died from a meth-related overdose in 2021, which represents a 43% increase from 2020 when 525 people died from a meth-related overdose.

In 2019, nearly 350 people died from a meth-related overdose.

Meth contamination at Colorado libraries puts spotlight on 'the silent epidemic'

Experts say street drug dealers often mix meth with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, making it more addictive and deadly.

In addition to the risk of a deadly overdose, meth users must deal with several other challenges.

“The addiction itself can cause a huge number of consequences,” said Sakai. “The consequences can be really massive in terms of destruction of family life, you know, folks end up being fired from jobs.”

Sakai says unlike opioids, which can be treated with several medications, there is no FDA-approved medication to treat meth addiction.

Instead, doctors often use psychological treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy and contingency management.

“They require some time and investment of a counselor and therapist and sitting down and working with the patient, which can be kind of expensive,” said Sakai.

A typical session can run anywhere from $100 to $200, depending on the treatment plan, and may not be covered by some insurance plans.

As an alternative, Sakai and a team of researchers at the CU CONA (Colorado Neuromodulation of Addiction) Lab are putting together a study to see if Deep Brain Stimulation can help people addicted to meth.

Deep Brain Stimulation involves sending electrical impulses to target specific parts of the brain.

“It’s a long-term trial, where half the time they will have the stimulation on hours to determine whether the stimulation really does have any kind of an effect,” said Sakai. “We’re open to recruitment now and we want to bring in and essentially recruit and complete the procedures for five individuals. We hope to do that over the next year.”

Sakai says if the results seem promising, the National Institute on Drug Abuse may provide them with more grant money to expand the study.

While the media spotlight has been more focused on the opioid epidemic in recent years, the meth epidemic received the attention of the Biden Administration, which released an action planto address public health and safety concerns last year due to rising overdose deaths.

Meanwhile, some Colorado libraries remain closed to the public as crews clean up contaminated areas.

In Englewood, where only limited library services are currently available, city officials estimate the cleanup will cost $47,000.

"Our remediation process has begun. It will require a triple application of a mild detergent to clean the affected areas by state-certified experts," Chris Harguth, the director of communications for the City of Englewood, said in an email to Denver7.

Officials in Englewood say they’re also looking at ways to prevent this from happening again and are considering installing sensor devices to help them detect meth and other substances in the future.

Libraries in Englewood, Boulder, Arvada and Littleton closed due to meth contamination in recent weeks.

Anyone interested in participating in the CU Deep Brain Stimulation study can visit the CONA lab website and complete a survey.

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