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State & Regional

Fentanyl Has Made It To The Mountain West And Its Death Toll Is Rising

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Mountain West News Bureau
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COVID-19 isn’t the only epidemic the U.S. is facing. Fatal drug overdoses are skyrocketing, driven by synthetic opioids like fentanyl. And that potentially deadly drug has made it to the Mountain West -- the last region to face the brunt of the opioid crisis.

It was 2018. Ashley Romero was 32. She was living in Grand Junction, Colorado, a smaller  community known for mountain bike tourism, public land access and beautiful rocky terrain. She had an eight-year old son. And a boyfriend.

“She was dating someone and he gave her a half of a little blue pill.”

Andrea Thomas is her mother. She says it looked like a Percocet.

“The pill was actually poisoned with fentanyl, or laced with fentanyl, and she died almost instantly.”

Her boyfriend took the other half, also nearly died and was revived. But he killed himself shortly after. These pills, also called Mexican Oxy, Blue Mexis, or Blues, contain the man-made opioid fentanyl. It’s similar to morphine, but can be 100 times stronger. It can make you high, or if you have too much, stop your heart. 

“You hear of overdoses all the time. But the difference between what happened to my daughter and all of those stories that I heard about overdose before is that she didn't overdose. She was poisoned.” 

Thomas started the Voices for Awareness Foundation to help get out the word about these counterfeit pills, but still finds plenty of people who don’t know. 

“I think that we need to be talking about this everywhere. I think that it should be in the schools. I think going into college.”

And she says we need action now. Fentanyl and similar synthetic opioids are driving increasing overdose deaths.

CDC estimates show Colorado had a 133 percent increase in overdose deaths from synthetic opioids last year. Other Mountain West states have seen similar increases.

So how do these fentanyl pills get here? 

Steve Kotecki is with the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Denver office. He explains that fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances often start with precursor chemicals in China that get shipped to Mexico. 

“And then down in Mexico, it's manufactured in a garage or a warehouse or something else down there by the cartels, is manufactured and then smuggled up through the southwest border.”

Mexican cartels like fentanyl because it’s cheap and powerful.

But it’s hard to mix in a way that’s safe. An amount similar to a few grains of sand can be enough to kill. Doctors use it on patients everyday, but they have instruments to give exact doses. Kotecki’s wife had it after giving birth.

“Fentanyl is great for pain management, you know, and it has helped a lot of people get through some really rough times.”

But the DEA says about a quarter of fentanyl pills they seized had enough of the substance to kill. And when I say fentanyl, I mean an umbrella of drugs which includes carfentanil: something used in elephant tranquilizers. It can stop your heart in seconds.

“I've been telling people it's like playing Russian roulette with a 4-chamber revolver.”

Cartels are pressing the fentanyl into pills that look like Oxycontin and Percocet. And that’s for a reason: the U.S. cracked down on opioid prescriptions. But many people still want them.

And Kotecki says the amount of fentanyl coming over the border has doubled every year for the last 4 years. Now, it’s everywhere.

“This is a problem that has reached every corner of our communities.”

Jess Stennet is a sergeant with the Idaho State Police. He’s in Kootenai County in north Idaho, which has about 170,000 people, the city of Coeur d’Alene and plenty of forest. Over 8 days this summer, that county had 5 unrelated overdose deaths. All suspected to have been fentanyl-related.

“It's a problem we have to combat. We can't just turn a blind eye to it.”

That problem includes some people using painkillers to feel better, or to simply not feel sick anymore. And kids experiment with these drugs, too. 

 

“We’ve had as young as 15-year-olds overdose...The availability of it is frightening.”

Stennet hopes people understand that if they didn’t get a pill from a pharmacist, it could be their last. 

 
This is the first of a three-part series. The next two parts detail how law enforcement and the courts are dealing with fentanyl and how to help people identify tainted drugs or avoid fentanyl hotspots.
 
The Mountain West News Bureau is a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.