Heroin abuse has reached crisis levels in Colorado. The drug killed 160 Coloradans in 2015. Heroin deaths and hospitalizations in the state went up almost every year between 2007 and 2013. The number of Coloradans admitted to treatment for heroin addiction went from 4,544 in 2013 to 7,622 in 2015 — a 68 percent increase.
The state’s heroin crisis is part of a national trend. The United States is in the midst of an unprecedented opioid addiction epidemic. In Colorado, the opioid and heroin crisis is the worst drug crisis since the first meth epidemic in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Many small towns and rural counties are dealing with large numbers of people with drug addiction for the first time.
Dangers of Colorado’s Heroin Supply
Many drug dealers and cartels mix heroin with other substances. Users have no idea what’s inside the drugs they’re injecting. Anyone using street heroin can overdose because of adulteration of the supply.
That’s begun to happen in Colorado. Colorado is a depot for drug trafficking, and major drug seizures have become increasingly common. Increased demand for the drug has created incentives for Colorado’s drug dealers to stretch their supply.
In 2016, dozens of Coloradans were killed by fentanyl overdoses. Fentanyl is a powerful opioid that is produced for legitimate medical purposes. Drug dealers mix the drug, which is relatively easy to acquire, with heroin to cut costs. In Adams County alone, 18 people died from fentanyl from January to November 2016.
According to the Aspen Times, even more dangerous drugs are now mixed into Colorado’s heroin supply. In April 2017, two Aspen-area men were found dead in a suburb. Their heroin had been mixed with carfentanil, a drug that is 10,000 times stronger than morphine.
Small doses of carfentanil can knock out an African elephant — an animal that weighs thousands of pounds. Vets use the drug to sedate elephants before surgery. In humans, ingesting the drug can cause death in seconds.
First responders who touch or inhale a few ounces of the drug during an overdose call can overdose and die. Heroin users who inject, smoke or snort drugs are at even greater risk of fentanyl overdose despite their tolerance to opioids.
Learn about drug trends in Colorado
Coloradans are top consumers of opioid painkillers, alcohol, cocaine, and marijuana.
Injecting opioids puts users at risk of overdose, heart attack and stroke. Injection also puts drug users at a very high risk of contracting bloodborne diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis. Those diseases are epidemic among intravenous drug users worldwide.
Coloradans learned about those risks after a surgical technician was convicted of stealing fentanyl from the Denver-area hospital where he worked. According to the Denver Post, the technician was fired after swapping a saline syringe with a fentanyl syringe. Because the technician was HIV-positive and the hospital couldn’t be sure that the syringes he swapped were clean, more than 3,000 patients were offered free HIV testing.
The case may have made Colorado residents more aware of the dangers of IV drug use and the importance of clean needles. In other places, particularly the Pacific Northwest, public health agencies have succeeded in slowing the spread of HIV and other bloodborne diseases by opening needle exchanges, according to an article in Public Health Reports.
IV drug users can exchange used needles for new, clean ones at needle exchanges. The programs safely dispose of used needles, and the user can be confident that their dose will not be tainted by someone else’s blood.
Exchanges in Denver, Pueblo and other cities have been successful, but many Colorado cities do not have needle exchange facilities. In 2013, the Colorado Springs health board revoked a license for a needle exchange, citing concerns that it would encourage drug use.
A large body of evidence says that harm reduction sites such as needle exchanges or safe injection facilities do not increase drug use in their neighborhoods.
Too many Colorado communities have lost neighbors to heroin abuse. Unless Colorado can step up its harm reduction and get people with heroin use disorders into rehab, the state will continue to see the loss of valuable lives.
Peter Johnson is a writer and journalist who has covered politics, policy, and social issues for outlets like The Atlantic and The Stranger. He contributed to an award-winning series about the opioid addiction epidemic in 2010 as a researcher with InvestigateWest.