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Colorado among states with most fentanyl pill seizures in the country

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Lindsey Toomer

(Colorado Newsline) While Colorado saw a record number of fentanyl pills confiscated by law enforcement in the state in 2023, it’s already well on the way to breaking that record in 2024.

A new report from New York University’s Langone Health found that Colorado tied with New Mexico for the second highest number of fentanyl pill seizures in the country in 2023, with 1,353 law enforcement confiscations. That resulted in 5.1 million pills being seized in Colorado across all law enforcement agencies, according to data the study used from the Drug Enforcement Administration’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program. The vast majority of fentanyl seized in Colorado in 2023 came in pill form.

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The DEA’s Rocky Mountain Field Division confiscated 2.6 million fentanyl pills in Colorado in 2023, a record high for the agency. The division covers Colorado, Utah, Montana and Wyoming. Across all four states the DEA confiscated 3.4 million pills in 2023, showing how Colorado drastically outweighs the other states in the region. The division seized 565,200 pills in 2021 and 1.9 million pills in 2022.

“It’s just an alarming increase,” David Olesky, the division’s acting special agent in charge, said. “Just through the first three months of 2024, we were almost already at the halfway point for all of last year’s totals — so sadly, most likely, we’re going to break that record again.”

Olesky said the DEA is seeing similar increases in fentanyl across the nation, but the amounts seized in Colorado lately are more comparable to what border states have seen in prior years. He said what was once considered a large quantity in a single seizure is now becoming more typical — a seizure in Trinidad earlier this year found more than 300,000 pills in one go, pushing the state in March past last year’s halfway point of 1.3 million pills.

Olesky said Interstate 25 and Interstate 70 have historically been two major corridors for drug trafficking, with deliveries moving north and east frequently to and through the Denver metro area. He said the intended end destination for the pills seized vary in each case — they could be meant for distribution in Colorado, or they could be traveling through the state toward another area.

The Denver Police Department saw an increase in both overdose deaths and fentanyl seizures in 2023, which led to the creation of a Fentanyl Investigation Team.

“The efforts of the team are concentrated in holding accountable the dealers in cases that led to the deaths within the community,” an unattributed statement from the department to Newsline said. “While the team has only been around a short amount of time, they are working to bring prosecution of those dealers in a number of cases. The Denver Police Department is also committed to addressing the fentanyl issue through collaboration on task forces with local, state and federal law enforcement partners.”

Fentanyl overdose deaths

Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment has a dashboard tracking overdose deaths in the state between 2020 and 2022. While the number of overdose deaths grew from 1,477 in 2020 to 1,881 in 2021, it dropped down to 1,799 in 2022.

CDPHE’s 2023 numbers won’t be finalized until early June, but according to a preliminary count provided to Newsline the department has recorded 1,833 overdose deaths among Colorado residents in 2023. Of those deaths, 1,089 involved fentanyl, compared to 912 in 2021 and 920 in 2022.

The recent slight increase in total drug overdose deaths can be explained in part by the increase in the state’s population in 2023, CDPHE Prevention Services Division spokesperson Maria Livingston said in an email. “However, the proportion of drug overdose deaths specifically involving fentanyl has increased (from 49 percent in 2021 to 59 percent in 2023).”

The NYU report details the differences between pill and powder confiscations growing in the U.S. between 2017 and 2023, noting that pills are quickly outpacing powder. It also said in 2023, 85 percent of all fentanyl pill seizures came from the West. The West also became the region with the most fentanyl seizures by weight.

“About half of seized fentanyl is now in pill form, suggesting that the illicit drug landscape has rapidly changed,” study lead author Joseph Palamar, deputy director of the National Drug Early Warning System and associate professor at NYU, said in a statement. “Fentanyl in pill form not only makes it easier for people to initiate use, but also increases the chances that people who buy illicit pills could be unintentionally exposed to fentanyl since it is commonly present in counterfeit pills pressed to resemble oxycodone, Xanax, or even Adderall.”

The report concluded that monitoring regional shifts can help inform prevention and public health response.

Addressing the rise of fentanyl is the DEA’s top priority, Olesky said. The agency said the synthetic opioid is the leading cause of death for Americans aged 18 to 45. Olesky said it warrants an all-hands-on-deck approach through mental health interventions, community outreach and education in schools. The problem will only continue until the legal consequences of trafficking fentanyl are greater than the financial gain, he said.

“(Not) until the deterrent effect of the judicial system outweighs the benefits of the tracking of these drugs will we start seeing a change,” Olensky said.

According to a news release from the Rocky Mountain division, the DEA, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area launched a new operation specifically targeting the movement of drug cartels’ finances.

“Operation Cash Out is an important strategy because working with money service businesses throughout the region will help law enforcement potentially identify and seize illegal profits gained from fentanyl distribution,” Rocky Mountain HIDTA Executive Director Keith Weis said in a statement. “It can ultimately disrupt the most significant drug trafficking organizations impacting our Rocky Mountain communities.”

Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.