It marks one of the largest fentanyl busts in Colorado, which has seen a spike in deaths from fentanyl overdoses in recent years. According to the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, more than 900 people in Colorado died of fentanyl overdoses last year.
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In what was described as "the largest fentanyl seizure on any U.S. highway" during a July 6 news conference, Denver-area law enforcement officials reported 114 pounds of fentanyl powder was found last month in the back of a vehicle on Interstate 70 traveling towards Denver.
It marks one of the largest fentanyl busts in Colorado, which has seen a spike in deaths from fentanyl overdoses in recent years.
According to the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, more than 900 people in Colorado died of fentanyl overdoses last year. In 2020, 540 people died.
"In my 31 years of law enforcement, I have never seen anything like the current drug crisis and how it is adversely affecting our communities," said Brian Besser, special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Denver Field Division.
Denver itself is "in the line of fire" for fentanyl distribution, said Besser, because of its geographic location that makes it a "crossroads of the West."
"The I-70 and I-25 corridors are where deadly drugs head north and east and money heads south," Besser said.
John Kellner, district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, said a separate seizure that led to about 200,000 fentanyl pills being recovered along with 9.4 pounds of heroin, a kilogram of cocaine and four guns was the result of an investigation that spanned nearly half a year.
Beginning with knowledge of "a single purchase" of fentanyl in December 2021, Kellner said his office conducted an investigation using wiretapping and eventually, in May, indicted eight people believed to be involved with major drug trafficking.
Kellner said fentanyl is showing up more and more in illicit drugs like cocaine, heroin and MDMA. An extremely deadly substance, fentanyl is believed to be 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin or morphine, according to the CDC, with a lethal dose being about 2 to 3 milligrams.
Colorado lawmakers have made addressing fentanyl a key legislative priority, with Gov. Jared Polis signing a major "accountability and prevention” bill in early May.
The law, which went into effect July 1, seeks to crack down on buyers and sellers by making possession of more than 1 gram of the drug — or any substance containing it — a felony.
The bill also sponsors recovery and harm reduction efforts, with $10 million for treatment centers for people to detox in and $600,000 set aside for testing strips.
Kellner called testing "part of addressing the crisis" but said the results are not always reliable.
"I'd hate to have somebody rely on that and find out that it's fentanyl and learn it the hard way, lose a life," Kellner said. "Fentanyl has made its way into practically every narcotic on the street."
Harm reduction advocates have said investments in treatment and recovery are essential to addressing the fentanyl crisis and, during the accountability bill's crafting, told lawmakers they feared harsher punishments for users would exacerbate addiction and suffering.
The DA's office has a diversion program that allows some people charged with drug possession to connect with rehabilitation treatments that — if deemed successful — could see their cases dismissed.
According to 18th Judicial District spokesperson Eric Ross, 104 cases have been referred to the program, with 28 successfully completed, though Ross said he does not have data on "failures versus those that are still in process."
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