CENTENNIAL, Colo. — The year's not over yet, but already, Colorado's most populated judicial district has filed more than double the amount of fentanyl-related criminal charges than it did in all of 2022.
In 2019, if someone was caught with less than four grams of fentanyl, it was a misdemeanor charge.
"A significant amount of fentanyl that could kill dozens of people. But really (it was) just (like) getting a ticket and then walking away," explained John Kellner, District Attorney for Colorado's 18th Judicial District, which includes Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties.
In 2022, the law was changed to make penalties harsher for fentanyl-related crimes and make it a low level felony to possess more than one gram of fentanyl. It also gave district attorneys the ability to track fentanyl specific charges.
Last year, throughout the 18th Judicial District, there were a total of 136 fentanyl-related charges filed. Of those, 122 were felony cases, 1 was a juvenile case and 13 were misdemeanors.
So far in 2023, there have been 316 fentanyl-related charges filed. Felony cases made up 225 of them, 7 were juvenile cases and 84 were misdemeanors.
"Terrible things are happening all across our community, that's still happening, it is still occurring on a regular basis. So we have not effectively solved the fentanyl problem by any stretch, but we're getting started on it," said Kellner.
On Overdose Awareness Day, Denver7 spoke to Lisa Raville with the Harm Reduction Action Center. They advocate for methods like sterile supplies and supervised use sites to reduce the risk of deadly overdoses.
"If stigma, shame and incarceration worked with drug use, (we) should have wrapped this up a long time ago," Raville said. "All that's done is drive use underground, where people have gotten preventable chronic diseases such as HIV, Hepatitis C and died of overdose."
Bill would create overdose prevention sites in Colorado
State data on overdose deaths in 2021 — before there were harsher penalties for fentanyl crimes — compared to data for 2022, after district attorneys were able to file those new types of charges, doesn't show a significant reduction.
In 2021, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) data shows that in Arapahoe County, 180 people died of a drug overdose. In Douglas County, 44 people died. In Elbert County, 14 people died. And in Lincoln County, three people died of a drug overdose.
Last year's data data shows increases from drug overdose.
In Arapahoe County, 194 people died of a drug overdose. In Douglas County, 41 people died. In Elbert County, 6 people died, and in Lincoln County fewer than 3 or possibly zero observations were recorded.
Denver7 requested the latest data for 2023 to date from CDHPE but the request was not returned by deadline.
"I don't think you're gonna see a rapid change in overdose-related deaths, with a change in the law just from last year. We're talking about the early stages of implementation right now. Frankly, as I've said many times before, this is not a simply law enforcement problem, and it's not one that's going to be solved just in the courts or with police arresting people who are maybe struggling with addiction and committing other crimes associated with that," Kellner said.
While conversations over the best way to battle addiction and the dangers of fentanyl continue, Kellner said the new charging options are allowing Colorado district attorneys to do their part, and he hopes other resources get support they need to help solve the issue.
"We want to see an outcome as prosecutors where people are living a clean and sober life, where they're productive members of society, where they're getting the treatment resources, and oftentimes, drug treatment and mental health treatment, to try and help them get back on their feet. That's a big challenge in the state of Colorado because we simply don't have enough mental health resources," he said.
Recently, a state grant was approved for $502,237 to have the 18th Judicial District to add a fentanyl team to their organized crime unit. Officials will work with federal task forces to investigate drug trafficking organizations. They will also launch a partnership with the Arapahoe County Coroner to change investigation techniques to be able to better prosecute fentanyl dealers for accidental overdose deaths.
Kellner said a pilot program for that unit should be launching soon.