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“A drug of mass destruction”: Fentanyl deaths surge in Colorado, reaching an average of two fatalities a day

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“A drug of mass destruction”: Fentanyl deaths surge in Colorado, reaching an average of two fatalities a day

Courtesy of Andrea Thomas

Andrea Thomas holds an image of her daughter Ashley Romero, who died of a fentanyl overdose in 2018. She was 32.

The eggs sat on the counter and the potatoes waited in the pan for a late-night brunch as Ashley Romero died.

She took half a pill that appeared to be a prescription painkiller offered to her by her boyfriend. Romero had chronic pain her entire life from pancreatitis. When she was really hurting, she would sometimes take half a pill prescribed to her by her doctor.

This pill wasn’t prescribed, though. The fentanyl in the counterfeit tablet killed her in minutes. When the paramedics arrived at her Grand Junction home, both she and her boyfriend were unresponsive in her car. They revived her boyfriend with naloxone, but Romero died in the front seat on June 11, 2018.

She was 32 years old, a mother to an 8-year-old boy, a sister to three siblings, and Andrea Thomas‘ oldest daughter. The day after Romero’s death, her boyfriend died by suicide.

“I look at fentanyl as a drug of mass destruction,” Thomas said.

Romero is one of 1,275 Coloradans who died of overdoses involving fentanyl since 2018 as dealers have inserted the deadly synthetic painkiller into the state’s drug market. Fentanyl is particularly dangerous because tiny amounts can be fatal and the drug can be disguised as other substances and sold to unsuspecting customers, experts said. For those knowingly using the substance, it is particularly addictive, dangerous and difficult to treat.

A drug of mass destruction Fentanyl deaths surge in Colorado
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“I very rarely see a patient coming in for heroin these days, it’s almost always fentanyl,” said Michelle Gaffaney, a physician’s assistant who works in Denver Health’s outpatient addiction treatment services.

In 2018, at least 102 Coloradans died after overdosing on fentanyl, according to data collected by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The following year, that number doubled — 222 people died. In 2020, the death toll more than doubled again and 540 Coloradans died.

And deaths are still rising in 2021. At least 381 Coloradans died of fentanyl overdoses in the first six months of the year — an average of 64 people a month, or two a day.

Every year, fentanyl deaths represent a larger and larger portion of all overdose deaths in the state. In 2018, fentanyl caused 10% of overdose deaths. In the first six months of 2021, 44% of all overdoses involved fentanyl.

Death “as a cost of business”

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid used by doctors to treat severe pain. It is 100 times more potent than morphine and 2 milligrams of the substance can be lethal, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are the primary drivers of the surging number of overdose deaths in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 93,000 Americans died of an overdose in 2020 and 60% of those deaths involved synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl.

Illicit fentanyl started to appear in large quantities in Colorado in 2018, said Matt Kirsch, the acting U.S. attorney for the District of Colorado. Most fentanyl is in the form of pills, sometimes manufactured to look like prescription pain pills like oxycodone. But the substance comes in other forms, too, like bricks or rocks.

The majority of pills in Colorado are manufactured in Mexico from chemicals shipped there from China. The drug is then trafficked or mailed over the border, Kirsch said. Pills have varying levels of toxicity, even in the same batch, because pill presses operated by cartels in Mexico do not have the same quality control as manufacturers of prescription pills, he said.

Part of the reason for the explosion of fentanyl is that it is so much cheaper to produce than other drugs, Kirsch said. It is completely synthetic and doesn’t require agriculture like heroin, which needs fields of poppies. It’s easier and more profitable for dealers and manufacturers to sell fentanyl that looks like oxycodone than for them to sell oxycodone, even if it poses a deadly threat to their customer base.

“As despicable as it may be, I think it would be at least a logical conclusion for significant dealers of drugs to treat the deaths of some of their customers as a cost of business,” Kirsch said.

Fentanyl is different than many drugs because people using it often don’t know what they are consuming, Kirsch said. They thought they were buying heroin or oxycodone, but instead bought fentanyl. It’s like a fraud case grafted onto a drug case, he said.

“Most of the time the buyers aren’t willing buyers, they’re not buying what they think they’re buying,” he said.

Gaffaney, the Denver Health physician’s assistant, said she started to see an increase of people seeking treatment for addiction to fentanyl last summer. Now, about half of those seeking treatment for addiction at her facility use fentanyl pills. The drug’s potency makes it harder for medical staff to transition users to suboxone, a medication used to treat opioid addiction.

“Fentanyl is a more potent synthetic opioid, so often when our patients are exclusively using fentanyl they have more severe withdrawal symptoms, they’re coming in sicker,” she said.

The potency of fentanyl also means that it often takes multiple doses of naloxone to reverse an overdose. Naloxone, also known as Narcan, is a medicine that reverses opioid overdoses and restores breathing.

“There’s just this extra worry about our patients that might be using fentanyl because the risk is so high,” Gaffaney said. “We’ve lost patients to fentanyl this year.”

Colorado law enforcement agencies have made several seizures of large quantities of fentanyl. Investigators with the North Metro Drug Task Force in July intercepted a shipment of more than 40,000 pills containing fentanyl, three pounds of heroin and nine pounds of meth. Law enforcement officials in the Vail area have found several pounds of fentanyl pills while making traffic stops on Interstate 70. Denver police in 2019 found a kilogram of fentanyl, in brick and pill form, while serving a search warrant on a house. The brick at first appeared to be black tar heroin and the pills looked like oxycodone, but testing revealed they were fentanyl.

According to the DEA, a quarter of seized pills tested for fentanyl contain a lethal dose.

“Nobody should experience that”

Federal prosecutors have charged at least four people with the distribution of fentanyl causing death, including the man who brought the pill to Colorado that killed Romero.

A jury in April convicted that man, Bruce Holder, of distribution resulting in the 2017 death of Carbondale resident Jonathan Ellington among other charges. Holder was indicted on charges connected to Romero’s death, but prosecutors ultimately decided not to pursue those charges, her mother said.

Holder regularly drove to Mexico in 2017 and 2018 and picked up tens of thousands of fentanyl pills manufactured to look like oxycodone, according to investigators. He then brought them to Grand Junction, where he and some members of his family distributed them.

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Ex-Patriot Martellus Bennett rips QB Jimmy Garoppolo, credits Dolphins’ Jacoby Brissett’s toughness on podcast | Video

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50 Colo. Time dealers, Wells are auto fame inductees

Former New England Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett tore into 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, saying the ex-Patriots quarterback bailed out on the Pats hours before a 2016 game against the Buffalo Bills during the four-game Tom Brady suspension that began that season.

Bennett joined Miami Dolphins defensive back Jason McCourty and his twin brother, Devin, on their Double Coverage With The McCourty Twins podcast, and, during a wide-ranging stream-of-consciousness soliloquy, had an expletive-laced screed against Garoppolo, who played in New England from 2014-17. He also spoke about current Dolphins backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who also played for the Patriots then.

Said Bennett of Garoppolo and Brissett: “Bro, we lost two games [in 2016]. One of ‘em was because Jimmy Garoppolo was being a b—- and didn’t, and tried to quit, he quit for us on the last… decided not to play right before the game. So we went out there. Jacoby came out and played with a f—ed-up thumb and gave his … played his heart out. … You can’t win with a b—- for a quarterback. … He didn’t want to come out and do anything because his agent was trying to protect his body… which I can’t fault him for that, but, like you should have made that decision on Thursday, not Sunday.”

Talking to Jason McCourty, Bennett went on to savage the Dolphins for losing to the Jaguars: “Sometimes you get these losses where it’s just kind of like, ‘Damn.’ … Just like y’all losing to Jacksonville, right. Y’all lost to Jacksonville recently. Like, losing to Jacksonville has to hurt. ‘How are we the team that loses to Jacksonville? Like, everybody else, Jacksonville has lost [sic] 30 games in a row, and we will be the ones to break the 30-game losing streak?’ Like, come on, man! Nobody wants to lose to Jacksonville.”

With the conversation often referencing the Patriots, Devin McCourty, who has been with Bill Belichick for all 12 years of his NFL career, generally remained quiet as Bennett went off, allowing current Miami Dolphin and ex-Patriot Jason McCourty — who played in New England from 2018-20 — to respond and move the discussion forward.

Bennett also colorfully critiqued Jason Garrett and John Fox, his former coaches with the Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears respectively. Bennett played for five teams in a 10-year NFL career from 2008-17.

©2021 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Visit sun-sentinel.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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Virginia Beach’s Bruce Smith scared NFL quarterbacks to death. He has the tombstones to prove it.

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50 Colo. Time dealers, Wells are auto fame inductees

Bruce Smith was known for striking fear into opposing quarterbacks during his playing days in the NFL.

Now, as Halloween approaches, Smith’s neighbors can see just how many QBs he terrorized during his hall of fame career.

Inspired by a Twitter post from Cleveland Browns defensive lineman Myles Garrett, Smith’s friends — Paul Holley and Mike Hillier — got the idea to come up with a similar Halloween attraction.

Holley and Hillier arranged a slate of gravestones painted with the name and number of the NFL quarterbacks Smith sacked during his 15 seasons with the Buffalo Bills and four with Washington. Smith is the NFL’s all-time sack leader with 200, and 76 different quarterbacks — some many times — were his victims.

“We were playing golf with Bruce and we saw where someone had tweeted a picture of his graveyard with seven or eight tombstones of quarterbacks he had sacked,” Holley said, referring to Garrett. “I showed Bruce and asked him how many had he sacked. And he said, ‘76.’ So we said, ‘Let’s show him what a real graveyard looks like.’”

It only took a few minutes to convince Smith.

“Myles Garrett actually gave us the idea, and they thought it would be pretty cool for Halloween, for football fans, for kids to come by and take pictures and maybe get a football card or some candy,” said Smith, who played at Norfolk’s Booker T. Washington High and Virginia Tech and now lives in Virginia Beach. “You think of the number 200 sacks. And that’s just in the regular season. But then when you see the number of tombstones that have been amassed, and some of these guys I got to multiple times, then you kind of get a better picture and understanding of the career and of the accomplishments. And just an appreciation for the longevity that took place. “

Smith’s planted a who’s who of NFL quarterbacks, including Joe Montana, Steve Young, Warren Moon, John Elway and Troy Aikman.

But there is one legendary signal-caller who stood out to Smith.

“I don’t care too much for quarterbacks,” Smith said with a smile. “But for me, it was always Dan Marino. He was in the AFC East. He was the least sacked quarterback in that era because of his quick release. So it always gave me a great deal of satisfaction to get through some of those blockers and be able to get to him.”

Smith said his yard attraction couldn’t have been possible without the amazing work of artist Sam Clayman.

A lifelong Washington Football Team fan, Clayman was honored when Holley reached out to him about designing the styrofoam tombstones two weeks ago.

“I had other commitments and responsibilities throughout the week, so I had the weekends to do it,” he said. “I would wake up at 6:30 in the morning and work until I didn’t have any light left. Two very full weekends. But it was fun, though. And it was a challenge.”

Clayman said he’s used to doing paintings and clay sculptures, but this was a different challenge.

“But this was fun because it was something different outside of what I ordinarily do,” said Clayman, who also had help from Paul Ceballo. “It’s humbling. I’ve done a lot of work for some pretty high-profile talent from the area. It’s just icing on the cake when they happen to be a legend in their career.”

Larry Rubama, 757-446-2273, [email protected]tonline.com Follow @LHRubama on Twitter.

©2021 The Virginian-Pilot. Visit pilotonline.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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Broncos podcast: Denver, riding four-game losing skid, hosts Washington in must-win Week 8

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Broncos podcast: Denver, riding four-game losing skid, hosts Washington in must-win Week 8


Ryan O’Halloran

| Broncos reporter

Ryan O’Halloran has been covering the Broncos for The Post since 2018 and has covered the NFL since 2004. A native of North Dakota and graduate of Kansas State, O’Halloran previously covered the Washington Redskins for eight years, primarily at The Washington Times, and the Jacksonville Jaguars for six years at The Florida Times-Union. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors seven times for his work. He was named Colorado Sportswriter of the Year in 2019.

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