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Colorado's officials are at odds over how to respond to spike in fentanyl overdoses

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Colorado, the number of people dead from fentanyl overdoses has jumped fivefold, and officials are debating how to solve this problem, including whether to roll back some of the state's more lenient laws on drug possession. Colorado Public Radio's Allison Sherry has this story.

ALLISON SHERRY, BYLINE: The five young people who collapsed in an apartment in a suburb northeast of Denver last month thought they were doing a line of cocaine. Police say there were mirrors and razors and lines of powder. A 4-month-old infant was in another room. The fentanyl hit them so quickly, no one had a chance to call for help. Adams County District Attorney, Brian Mason...

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BRIAN MASON: This scene looks like a mass homicide scene. There were five bodies strewn around this room, and it was clear that they had taken the drugs and dropped to the ground.

SHERRY: These stories have become more common, not just in Colorado, but across the country. A surge of fentanyl is coming into the United States, mostly from Mexico, and it's being mixed with all kinds of street drugs, including, in rare cases, marijuana. This is mostly because it's so cheap to make. Phil Weiser is Colorado's attorney general.

PHIL WEISER: We lost more Americans to drug overdoses, mostly from opioids, than in the last year than we did in car crashes and gun violence deaths combined.

SHERRY: And fentanyl was the reason the numbers were so high last year. It's more addictive and way more lethal. It's 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine.

TAMI GOTTSEGEN: But if you're carrying four grams of fentanyl, you are not just a user, you are a dealer. And you should have a felony on your record, and you shouldn't be released on any bond. You should be held.

SHERRY: That's Tami Gottsegen. She lost her son, Braden, in 2019. He had chronic sleep problems and a friend gave him an oxycodone pill to help. He never woke up. They later learned the pill was fentanyl. The number of people who've died across the country from fentanyl overdoses has more than doubled since 2019, and, among teenagers, that number has tripled. Law enforcement and prosecutors, including the feds, have already quietly been stepping up enforcement and attempting to charge more distributors. Cole Finegan is Colorado's newly sworn in U.S. attorney.

COLE FINEGAN: The one thing we can deal with on our side of the equation is the supply piece.

SHERRY: And across the country, federal prosecutors have stepped up fentanyl-related prosecutions. Last year, there were more than 2,600 cases filed, up from roughly 300 a few years ago. More indictments are coming. For Finegan, the issue is personal. He just recently lost a family friend to a fentanyl overdose.

FINEGAN: And while every person's death matters, there is something about knowing somebody when they grow up or knowing them as a child and then seeing their parents.

SHERRY: At Colorado State Capitol in Denver, politicians are working on a solution that may include rolling back a 2019 law that lessened the penalties for low-level possession of drugs. Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen says he thinks there is a connection between decreasing penalties for possession and overdose deaths.

PAUL PAZEN: It went into effect March 1 of 2020, and starting in April, we start - we see increases in overdose deaths.

CHRISTIE DONNER: I guarantee you most people are not sitting around thinking, well, if only, like, drug possession was a felony, my kid wouldn't be using drugs. Human beings don't work that way.

SHERRY: Christie Donner leads the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition and has worked for decades on trying to decrease populations in jails and prisons. She says the crack epidemic 40 years ago taught us that locking people up for drugs doesn't necessarily help public safety.

DONNER: Been there, done that - this is like, you know, I need to get a perm - right? - because we're back in the '80s. And I - not laugh at it. It's not funny because it will have, you know, really substantial impacts in people's lives.

SHERRY: Colorado is in a moment when increasingly more young people are dying, and officials feel like they have to do something. What's unclear is whether this more punitive approach towards fentanyl distribution will save lives. For NPR News, I'm Allison Sherry in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Sherry