DENVER — Death in disguise: The opioid crisis is rising to a new level of urgency as fentanyl is flooding into Colorado, camouflaged as other prescription drugs like Oxycodone and Xanax.
Just this week, officials seized hundreds of thousands of dollars in fentanyl pills here in Colorado. The feds arrested two dozen people who are accused of being part of a Mexican drug trafficking ring based in Denver and Aurora.
“You think you're getting a familiar pill, but instead it's a deadly dose of fentanyl,” said David Wasserman, a drug policy reform activist.
In Fort Collins, the Northern Colorado Drug Task Force started working a case last month where there were eight overdoses over the course of a week, two of them fatal. The drugs were fentanyl-laced pills, disguised as Oxycontin.
"You're pretty much putting your life in their hands," task force Commander Joe Shellhammer said. "One was a 17-year-old female that passed away, and the other was a 29-year-old male. All around the same type of pills."
Shellhammer said the epidemic is a full-blown crisis.
“A year ago, we weren't seeing fentanyl at all,” he said. “Now, we're seeing it every couple of days. It has moved so quickly.”
Officials said what’s happening is that pill pressers in Mexico are now putting fentanyl in everything from Oxy to powder cocaine because it’s a cheap, yet extremely powerful, additive.
“And it keeps transitioning and changing,” Shellhammer said. “From Oxycontin pills and Percocet pills into heroin."
Black market drugs becoming more dangerous than ever.
Susan and Alden Globe’s daughter, Madeline, died of an accidental overdose while attending CU Boulder.
"Took a pill and hers had fentanyl in it," Susan Globe said.
Madeline and her friends thought the pills they were buying off a low-level dealer were Xanax. So did the dealer according to investigators.
“Nobody knows what’s in some of these drugs,” said Fred Johnson, the lead prosecutor in Madeline Globe’s case.
"It's black market laboratories,” Alden Globe said. “You need to think twice before taking some drug that someone gives you. If it's not from a doctor, you don't know what it is."
"The street drug supply is unpredictable,” Wasserman said. “And you never know what you're going to get."
One of the low-level dealers Shellhammer and his team busted told only half the people she sold to that it was fentanyl.
“And then the other half, she did not,” Shellhammer said. “She was telling them that it was this pill or that pill. She was leaving them in the dark.”
A short-term solution
Because of the drug adulteration and misrepresentation crisis, groups like DanceSafe are now selling fentanyl test strips and other drug testing kits.
“It’s a possibility, no matter what the drug is," said Mitchell Gomez, executive director of DanceSafe. "It’s a possibility no matter how much you trust the person you got it from. And the solution is – you have to test it yourself. You have to individually, as an individual substance user, take responsibility for your own health."
Gomez believes the test strips are a short-term solution, but the only long-term solution is outright legalization.
“I’m not necessarily saying sell heroin in 7-Eleven," Gomez said. "But I do think that creating legal regulated markets is the only way to deal with this. This is a massive public health crisis that’s not really being addressed. A speck of sand is more than enough to kill a person.”
Wasserman has even taken to college campuses in Colorado, handing out the test strips for free.
“The straight-up reason is that I’m sick of all my friends dying,” Wasserman said. “More people die from drug overdoses than car crashes now.”
Wasserman also hosted a workshop, teaching people how to use the test strips on street drugs before using them.
“When the strip touches the substance, it reacts to it in a certain amount of time and displays a certain color if it has fentanyl in it,” Wasserman told the crowd at his workshop. “You're going to hold it at the blue end."
The rise of fentanyl
Pill pressers are substituting fentanyl because it's strong and cheap.
"Really, really, really cheap,” Wasserman said. “The wholesale price for a kilo of heroin is around $50,000 dollars. You can get a kilo of fentanyl mailed to you straight from China for under $3,000 dollars."
Fentanyl is also highly addictive.
"The addictive qualities of fentanyl are 100 to 1000 times more than heroin," Shellhammer said.
And it's coming over the border in droves.
"In smaller doses, it's easier to get across the border,” Shellhammer said. “Easier to hide."
And Shellhammer said it's showing up in more places than you might expect.
"It's not just in Fort Collins or Loveland or Thornton," Shellhammer said. "We're seeing it in small towns. We're seeing it in rural areas."
The Northern Colorado Drug Task Force is dropping everything to address the crisis.
"When we had those overdose deaths, we stopped what we were doing — our other cases — and we threw all of our resources at that," Shellhammer said. “Because we had to get those pills off the streets immediately. And it takes a lot of time and resources.”
Shellhammer said the pill pressing operations are just across the border in Mexico and the drugs are then shipped up to the U.S.
“And people are buying them thinking that it's one thing, and then it's a fentanyl tablet, and the next thing you know, they wind up dead," Wasserman said. “When you're acquiring drugs from a stranger, or even your best friend, or your girlfriend or boyfriend or brother or whatever, you're taking them at their word. But they might not even know what they're giving you these days. They only know what their person told them or what their dealers dealer told them.”
And the cartels knows there’s a market.
"The cartel has been increasingly interested in fentanyl because they don't have to pay poppy farmer," Wasserman said. " They don't have to pay people to plant the poppy's and wait around for them. Instead, chemists mix up the batches in three days.
“When your friend is going, 'Hey, I'm going to go hook us up with pills from so-and-so,’ you’re pretty much putting your life in their hands.”
Shellhammer said they are working day and night to stop the deaths and reduce the supply.
“I'm really concerned on where this is going to end,” Shellhammer said.