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La Plata County officials return from fentanyl summit with new insights

Trainings designed to help law enforcement, prosecutors collaborate
Officials with the 6th Judicial District and Southwest Drug Task Force attended Colorado’s first statewide fentanyl summit last week in Denver. They say the summit, which was in part intended to help increase collaboration between law enforcement and prosecutors, has given them new tools and approaches to address the spread of the drug in La Plata County. (U.S. Attorney’s Office for Utah via AP file)

Officials with the 6th Judicial District and Southwest Drug Task Force attended Colorado’s first fentanyl summit last week in Denver and have come away with new insights for tackling the spread of the drug in La Plata County.

The Colorado Fentanyl Summit brought together elected officials, law enforcement and district attorneys from across the state to the Denver Art Museum on Thursday and Friday to train and collaborate to improve their response to the swell of fentanyl in Colorado.

“There’s so much information that came out of that couple of days that we were up there,” said Lt. Joey LaVenture, commander of the Southwest Drug Task Force, a collection of law enforcement agencies aimed at reducing drug distribution in La Plata County. “(We were) really looking at the different techniques some of the groups are using up there to further their investigations and different ways to look at these investigations.”

Officials at the summit discussed how the drug is made and sold on the Front Range, where fentanyl is more prevalent, sharing their approaches to better integrate the investigation and prosecution of suppliers. They also heard from the families who have lost loved ones to the drug.

Social media and apps such as Snapchat serve as a platform that fentanyl distributors and users rely on to circulate the drug, which can pose a particular risk to young people, said Sean Murray, deputy district attorney-appellate for the 6th Judicial District.

“Essentially, the message was to go after distributors and find ways to prosecute,” he said. “In some instances, people have been charged with manslaughter or something more severe (such as) extreme indifference homicide when they’re distributing a lethal dose of fentanyl to somebody else that dies.”

Along with the state’s new Fentanyl Accountability and Prevention Act, which was signed into law in May and will impose harsher penalties for those caught in possession of the drug when it takes effect July 1, Murray hopes the manslaughter and extreme indifference charges that have been successful elsewhere in the state can give local prosecutors tools to deter potential distributors.

For those in law enforcement, the dialogue with district attorneys proved particularly fruitful. The information they gleaned will help to improve their investigations.

“With a lot of the prosecutors, hearing how they’re dealing with those things on the back end just gives us some new ideas and tactics we can take with investigating these cases,” LaVenture said.

The Fentanyl Accountability and Prevention Act was a focus of the summit with elected officials discussing how the legislation will affect law enforcement and the prosecution of fentanyl.

In 2019, the Colorado Legislature passed legislation increasing the misdemeanor possession limit to 4 grams of many drugs, including fentanyl, to address the incarceration of drug users. But since then, law enforcement officials, including Durango Police Department Chief Bob Brammer, have voiced concerns that the possession of any amount of fentanyl should be a felony given the danger of the drug.

Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The new bill makes possessing more than 1 gram of fentanyl a felony, facilitates the distribution of naloxone (the generic name for Narcan) and requires residential treatment for some drug offenses.

As a prosecutor, Murray said the summit was revelatory because those involved in the Fentanyl Accountability and Prevention Act revealed that the legislation places more of the burden of evidence on those caught in possession of the fentanyl.

“If essentially, they’re going to say, ‘I didn’t know that what I had had fentanyl in it,’ that burden is on them, which is kind of unusual,” he said. “Typically, we place all the burden on the prosecution and law enforcement to say beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Colorado’s first fentanyl summit comes as fentanyl distribution and use continues to grow rapidly across the state inflicting overdoses and deaths.

On June 1, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado announced that law enforcement in the state had seized more fentanyl in the first five months of 2022 than all of 2021.

More than 900 people in Colorado died from fentanyl in 2021, according to reporting from The Colorado Sun. In 2018, 102 Coloradans died from the drug, according to Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment data.

The District Attorney’s Office has yet to prosecute any cases involving the death of someone from fentanyl in the 6th Judicial District, Murray said.

However, the summit was important in preparing law enforcement and prosecutors for what they see as inevitable, LaVenture said.

“This is not just a La Plata County problem. It’s not just a Denver problem. It’s a statewide problem,” he said. “What we’re seeing is an increase in this drug in our area. The problem is only going to get worse, unfortunately, so for us we’re going to be better off the more tools that we have, the more knowledge that we have about this.”

While at the summit, Murray also purchased naloxone from CDPHE for the district’s “Wellness Court” team, which aims to reduce recidivism and assist high-risk populations in the court system.

In addition to the legal tools law enforcement and prosecutors have at their disposal, Murray said education and awareness will also be critical to tackling fentanyl in La Plata County. Even as public safety officials make progress in collaborating, fentanyl still poses a serious danger to the community.

“There’s so much profit that can be had from distributing something like this and unfortunately we have, like everywhere in Colorado, people that are addicted to opiates,” he said. “There’s both demand and that profit motive, which I think demonstrates that we’re going to have some (more) deaths as a result of this drug.”


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