Mancos deputy marshals pulled over a car about a month ago for a routine traffic stop, but what they found shocked them: 125 fentanyl pills, a powerful synthetic opioid typically used to treat patients with severe pain.
Investigations into two deaths in Mancos last year also uncovered a large amount of fentanyl in the bodies’ systems.
“We’ve seen an uptick in fentanyl in the area,” said Mancos Marshal Justen Goodall, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. With the borders closed, drug sellers can’t get the ingredients to make methamphetamine, so they are “going to push something else,” Goodall said.
However, Goodall said he believes meth is being “cut” with fentanyl, a lethal combination. When meth is made illegally, it is produced by distilling several harsh chemicals and medications like codeine. It is also often “cut” with additives to intensify and alter the effects of the drug so dealers can make less of the actual drug for more money.
To confirm their suspicion, the Mancos Marshal’s Office sent meth samples to state drug testing laboratories with the Department of Public Health and Environment.
“One fentanyl pill could equate to one death depending on the potency,” Goodall said. Chronic users also have to take more of the drug to reach the same high, leading to highly lethal amounts, he said.
Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin has also noted a large increase in fentanyl drug use.
“There have been quite a few overdoses,” Nowlin said, “and not just with fentanyl, but with meth and heroin, too.”
The uptick is not isolated to Montezuma County. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment recorded 443 overdose deaths in the state between January and April 2020, a 35% increase from the same time period in 2019.
According to the Colorado Institute of Health, the biggest increase in overdose deaths came in March and April, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Montezuma County has had four overdose deaths in 2020 since the start of March, according to county Coroner George Deavers. The average number of overdoses has typically been two to three, but the past couple of years have seen an increase in overdose deaths, with the record at 11 in one year, Deavers said.
The lockdown exacerbated social isolation and stress as many Coloradans lost their jobs and stayed home to avoid the virus.
2019 had already broken state records for the highest number of overdoses, when 1,062 Coloradans died. Of the deaths, 612 were from opioids like fentanyl, according to data from CDPHE.
Deaths from fentanyl in Colorado have more than doubled, with some 220 deaths in the state involving fentanyl in 2019, and only 102 deaths involving fentanyl in 2018.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also reported on the stark increase in overdose deaths for people of color, particularly Native Americans. The report highlighted that high rates of physical, emotional and historical trauma for Indigenous communities contributed to the increase in overdose deaths, as well as a lack of equitable access to treatment.
People living in remote, rural areas also lack easy access to mental health support, which can lead to a higher rate of overdose deaths.
“Fentanyl is really potent, and then you add on top of that the pandemic and little access to health services,” said Jalyn Ingalls, policy analyst for the Colorado Health Institute. Those drivers to substance abuse will likely play out over the next several years, Ingalls said, and they are both “things we will want to address.”