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Autopsy confirms Durango student died of accidental fentanyl overdose

Southwest Drug Task Force and police department say drug is circulating and poses a threat
Some of the fentanyl pills flowing into Durango and La Plata County are designed to look like OxyContin. The pills are small and generally blue or green in color, and they have an “M” stamped on one side and a “30” stamped on the other. Fentanyl-linked deaths more than doubled in Colorado from 2019 to 2020, reaching 540. (Toby Talbot/Associated Press file)

Area law enforcement renewed their warnings about the dangers of fentanyl this week after it was confirmed that a Durango student died of an accidental overdose, according to an autopsy report released by the La Plata County coroner.

The student, a sophomore who attended Animas High School, died late Dec. 10 or early Dec. 11 of fentanyl intoxication, the autopsy and toxicology report confirmed. The death was ruled an accident.

The student was found unconscious and not breathing before being taken to the hospital. Attempts to revive the student were unsuccessful.

Details about the incident remain unavailable because an investigation into the student’s death and the source of the drugs is ongoing, according to La Plata County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Joey LaVenture, commander of the Southwest Drug Task Force, which is conducting the investigation.

A Durango Police Department post on Facebook on Dec. 11 said it appeared as if the student ingested Percocet laced with fentanyl. Percocet contains oxycodone, an opioid painkiller, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The DPD post added that two other students were hospitalized, though they were expected to recover. Durango police Chief Bob Brammer later clarified that there was more than one incident. Two students who overdosed were in the county, one of which was the student who died, and a third student was in the city of Durango.

Names and ages of the students were not released.

The student’s death highlights the increasing threat of fentanyl in Durango, La Plata County and across Colorado.

Law enforcement has seen fentanyl soar in the area since 2018, replacing heroin as the most prevalent drug along with methamphetamine.

“2020 (and) 2021 it really skyrocketed in the area,” LaVenture said.

Law enforcement most often sees fentanyl in the form of counterfeit prescription pills, particularly OxyContin, Xanax and Percocet.

The pills are small and generally blue or green in color. They have an “M” stamped on one side and a “30” stamped on the other.

In the last two years, law enforcement has confiscated several thousands of these pills, LaVenture said.

“We’re always seeing new counterfeit pills coming through,” he said.

One of the reasons why fentanyl is so dangerous is the variability in each pill.

Brammer said the counterfeit pills are usually made in Mexico and there is no standardized process. One pill could contain a significant amount of fentanyl or very little.

“There is no quality control when it comes to the production of this narcotic; that’s what makes it so dangerous,” he said. “Any single pill that you ingest, you’re playing Russian roulette.

“If you’re taking something that you’re buying off the street, you’re gambling with your life,” he said.

Fentanyl pills confiscated by the Cortez-Montezuma Narcotics Investigation Team. (Courtesy of Detective Victor Galarza)

The only way to tell how much fentanyl is in a pill is to send it off for analysis in a lab, LaVenture said.

On top of the lack of quality control, fentanyl is extremely powerful. Fentanyl is 100 times more potent than morphine.

A potentially lethal dose is 2 milligrams of fentanyl, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

To put that in context, a Percocet pill that contains 5 milligrams of the oxycodone, one of the active ingredients in Percocet, weighs approximately 550 milligrams, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets federal sentencing guidelines for drug trafficking.

Enough fentanyl to kill a person would account for 0.37% of the weight of a single Percocet pill.

According to the DEA, almost half of tested pills contain at least 2 milligrams of fentanyl.

La Plata County Coroner Jann Smith has watched accidental deaths from fentanyl grow in recent years.

“It’s been coming on over the last couple of years,” she said.

Smith did not have an estimate for the number of deaths, but said that an estimate of approximately one fentanyl overdose death per month sounded accurate.

According to Brammer and LaVenture, law enforcement has trouble putting a figure on how many people in La Plata County and Durango are overdosing from fentanyl because cases often go unreported.

With Narcan, a treatment for reversing a narcotic overdose, becoming more accessible in recent years, many people are saved by those who accompany them or they save themselves.

“There are a ton of overdoses that happen that never get reported to fire, law enforcement or a medical hospital,” LaVenture said.

While fentanyl doesn’t discriminate against young or old, Smith said the drug has most often killed those 40 years old and younger.

“We haven’t really put an age range on it because there isn’t one,” LaVenture said. “We’re seeing high schoolers (and) people in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s up into their 60s that are using this stuff.”

According to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, those between the ages of 15 and 45 account for the majority of the deaths from opioid analgesics, a class of drugs that includes codeine, oxycodone and fentanyl.

Overdose deaths have been steadily increasing in Colorado in recent years.

About 650 people died from overdoses in Colorado in 2010, according data from the CDPHE.

In 2020, the last year in which complete state data is available, 1,477 Coloradans died from drug overdoses, a record for the state.

From June 2020 to June 2021, Colorado saw a 31.7% increase in overdose deaths, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

More than half of Colorado’s overdose deaths in 2020 were a result of opioid analgesics, largely driven by fentanyl.

About 68% of deaths from opioid analgesics, of which there were 798, were caused by fentanyl, according to an analysis of CDPHE data by the Colorado Health Institute, a nonpartisan health policy nonprofit.

Fentanyl-linked deaths more than doubled in Colorado from 2019 to 2020, reaching 540.

Preliminary data from CDPHE showed that fentanyl was involved in at least 643 overdose deaths in 2021, according to the Denver Gazette.

According to LaVenture, there is no safe way to take pills sold on the street.

“I’ve been asked several times: How do we teach people to use this drug safely?” he said. “My answer is there is no safe way to do this drug because you don’t know what you’re getting. We’ve had people overdose that thought they were getting a Percocet and OxyContin and it wasn’t that at all. It was actually fentanyl.”

Both Brammer and LaVenture agreed fentanyl will continue to pose a danger as long as it circulates in Durango and La Plata County.

“It’s a real problem and it’s one that’s going to be here to stay for a long time,” Brammer said. “And it’s going to create a lot of damage while it’s here.”

ahannon@durangoherald.com