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As deaths from fentanyl continue, Colorado pushes for action

Mother launches Voices for Awareness Foundation in Grand Junction
In 2018, just over 100 Coloradans died from fentanyl. Four years later that number had jumped to more than 900, according to the DEA. (Bailey Duran/The Journal file)

In 2018, Andrea Thomas got news that all parents dread. Her 32-year-old daughter Ashley, a mom herself, had died. The culprit was half a counterfeit pill that contained fentanyl, a synthetic opioid.

Thomas recalled, “We didn’t even know what illicit fentanyl was. We didn’t know about it at all. And neither did my daughter.”

The loss of her daughter spurred Thomas to act, and within six months she was in Congress giving briefings on the dangers of fentanyl. “I thought naively that once they learned about the seriousness of this, that they would begin to share the message. And they didn't.”

She launched the Voices for Awareness Foundation in Grand Junction. And she watched as the time for Congress to address the issue ticked by.

In 2018, just over 100 Coloradans died from fentanyl. Four years later that number had jumped to more than 900, according to the DEA. Numbers from the CDC show that, across the country, 112,000 people died of overdoses from May 2022 to May 2023, and a recent study estimates that 40% of Americans know somehow who died of an overdose.

If Congress had focused on the issue when Thomas and others were starting to talk about it, “it would have made a difference, in thousands, hundreds of thousands of lives,” she said.

Thomas views the situation as both a public health crisis and a national security crisis.

She said she wants to see Congress take several steps, including doing more to prevent the chemicals that are used to make illicit fentanyl from coming into the country. The Biden Administration reached a deal with China last November to crack down on Chinese companies that make chemicals used in fentanyl.

Thomas would also like to see it classified permanently as a Schedule 1 drug. And she added she’d even go one step further.

“ (It) would be wonderful if they would declare it a weapon of mass destruction because then it would hit all levels.”

The idea is that labeling the drug as a WMD would pull new resources into the fight, including from the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security.

Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert has a bill to do just that, but her office would not make her available for an interview. Fellow Republican Rep. Brad Wenstrup of Ohio, a surgeon, has also introduced an expanded version of the idea.

In an interview with CPR News, Wenstrup explained that he approached the idea from his seat on the Intelligence Committee.

“I'm concerned about fentanyl being aerosolized – could be brought on a drone, dropped over a crowd. I mean, there's all these really horrific things that could happen from that,” he said. “And I think that we need to up the game. I think we need to put it at a higher level.”

This proposal to classify illicit fentanyl a WMD – even though it’s so far never been used as a weapon in the traditional sense – was first floated during the Trump administration but didn’t gain traction.

Wenstrup admits that with everything else on Congress’ to-do list, this may not be something lawmakers take up any time soon. But, he said, it’s just about planting the seed of an idea, “and sometimes it's two years later, four years later, you got to continue that effort.”

The grindingly slow pace of legislation is also why advocates on the ground don’t necessarily look to Congress to solve this problem with the urgency they think it deserves, but rather state government. Colorado lawmakers have taken up numerous bills on the issue in recent years, including reinstating tougher penalties for dealers.

But Lisa Raville, executive director of the Harm Reduction Action Center in Denver, worries that at both the state and federal level, policymakers are just repeating the past.

“Right now, all they keep doing is doubling down on the worst ideas of the drug war, which are incarceration and criminalization,” she said.

Reville would like to see Congress get ahead of the curve, such as developing testing strips for emerging drug threats, like xylazine.

But when it comes to saving lives from fentanyl, her message to Congress is simple: instead of cracking down, “I would be advocating for overdose prevention centers and a safe (drug) supply.”

The fentanyl crisis, like the decades long war on drugs, is a big problem with many avenues of attack. It’s why last year Rep. Joe Neguse founded the bipartisan Fentanyl Prevention Caucus, as a place where lawmakers from different parts of the country, with different backgrounds, could learn from experts about potential policy solutions.

“We wanted to take a breath and really make sure that we were engaging the experts in a meaningful way before we outlined the more comprehensive solutions that might be what we pursue,” he told CPR News.

The caucus rolled out a small package of bills earlier this year. One focuses on a tax credit for companies researching drug abuse issues, including emerging threats, fentanyl and related substances, methamphetamines, and other emerging threats. The other is a pay incentive for people with cyber-skills to combat fentanyl trafficking online.

Other Colorado lawmakers, like Rep. Brittany Pettersen, are pulling from personal experience as they approach this issue.

Pettersen’s mother suffered from an opioid addiction and overdosed often once fentanyl came into the drug supply.

While her main interest is the public health avenues, the first term Democrat is also using her seat on the Financial Services Committee to tackle the problem, by “going after the illicit financing side of drug trafficking. And so making sure that the bad actors aren't utilizing our financial system.”

“That's been a different way to approach it,” said Pettersen, “but definitely rewarding.”

While it’s hard for anything to get through this Congress, Pettersen does see people working together in this area at least.

“This is a complicated issue, but we can solve this with the right policies. And that's what keeps me going every day. I need more partners in Congress who actually want to get these things done.”

The next possible action could be around funding – Congress is currently crafting its budget, which could contain more money to tackle the fentanyl problem.

To read more stories from Colorado Public Radio, visit www.cpr.org.

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