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Three deaths at Cortez motel blamed on fentanyl use

The rise of black-market fentanyl, a powerful opioid, has triggered warnings from the Drug Enforcement Agency about its potential for addiction and fatal overdose.
Alcohol was a contributing factor; triple fatality is one of many group deaths cited in DEA warning

A combination of fentanyl and alcohol was blamed for the deaths of three people found dead in a Cortez motel room March 4, according to Montezuma County Coroner George Deavers.

Shondella L. Silas, 44, of Towaoc, Tharon F. Grayhair, 40, of White Mesa, Utah, and Tilden D. Arrates, 27, of Towaoc all died from fentanyl-related overdose, according to autopsies, Deavers said.

Silas and Arrates were members of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and Grayhair was Navajo. Their bodies were discovered in a room at the Sand Canyon National 9 Inn, 301 W. Main St. No foul play was suspected, the Cortez Police Department said.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Pharmaceutical fentanyl is prescribed for pain management of cancer patients, but the drug also is manufactured on the black market and disguised on the street as an oxycodone pill, a less potent opioid.

Fentanyl often is added to other drugs because of its potency, which makes drugs cheaper, more powerful, more addictive and more dangerous, according to the CDC.

Police reported pills laced with fentanyl were found in the motel room. The drug has been circulating on the black market in Montezuma County for some time, according to the Montezuma-Cortez Narcotic Drug Task Force.

In general, 2 milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal, depending on a person’s size, tolerance, and past usage, and on whether it was combined with other drugs and alcohol, according to the DEA.

Autopsies showed the three who died March 4 all had more than 2 milligrams, Deavers said.

The incident in Cortez and similar situations have been used as examples of why stricter laws for fentanyl were needed.

On April 6, the DEA sent a letter to federal, state and local law enforcement warning of a nationwide spike of fentanyl-related overdoses involving multiple people.

The letter from DEA Administrator Anne Milgram states the individuals in the Cortez motel room overdosed and died “after ingesting what they believed were 30 mg oxycodone pills, but which were in fact fake prescription pills containing fentanyl.”

“Fentanyl is killing Americans at an unprecedented rate,” Milgram stated. “Already this year, numerous mass-overdose events have resulted in dozens of overdoses and deaths. Drug traffickers are driving addiction and increasing their profits by mixing fentanyl with other illicit drugs. Tragically, many overdose victims have no idea they are ingesting deadly fentanyl, until it’s too late.”

Fentanyl-related mass-overdose events have happened in at least seven American cities in recent months, resulting in 58 overdoses and 29 deaths, according to the DEA.

Impacted cities include Cortez and Commerce City, Colorado; Wilton Manors, Florida; Austin, Texas; Omaha, Nebraska; St. Louis, Missouri; and Washington, D.C.

Illegal manufactured fentanyl pills, shown here, are potent opioid drugs that can lead to addiction and overdose. The drug is sometimes used in counterfeit oxycodone pills sold on the black market. (Courtesy Cortez Police Department)

The CDC estimates that in the 12 months ending in October more than 105,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, and more than 66% of the deaths were related to fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. In 2021, the U.S. had more fentanyl-related deaths than gun-related and auto-related deaths combined.

The Colorado Legislature has proposed House Bill 22-1326 to enhance criminal penalties for the distribution of illegal fentanyl and to provide treatment for addicts. The bill passed the House on Monday on a third reading.

The bipartisan bill was sponsored by Democrat House Speaker Alec Garnett of Denver and Republican Rep. Mike Lynch of Wellington. In the Senate, it was sponsored by Democrat Sen. Brittany Pettersen of Lakewood and Republican Sen. John Cooke of Greeley.

“Today, the House took a monumental step forward to combat the fentanyl crisis, crack down on the dealers peddling death in our communities and accelerate our state’s public health response to get this deadly drug off our streets and save lives,” Garnett said in a news release.

The bill would make it a felony to knowingly possess more than 1 gram of fentanyl compound/mixture and would create legal guardrails for individuals who didn’t know they were in possession of fentanyl.

The bill also would give law enforcement officers tools to require treatment for individuals with a substance-use disorder.

Defendants in possession of any amount of fentanyl compound would be assessed for a substance-use disorder and required to complete an education program developed by the Office of Behavioral Health in Colorado Department of Health and Environment.

According to the bill, individuals assessed with a substance-use disorder would be required to complete mandatory treatment.

The new felony includes a provision that would allow people who completed treatment to have the felony reduced to a misdemeanor on their criminal record.

The legislation creates a grant fund for law enforcement agencies to pursue investigations of fentanyl poisonings, provides funding to crisis stabilization centers and detoxification centers and expands medication-assisted treatment in jails.

HB 22-1326 directs $29 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to implement recommendations from the Behavioral Health Task Force on effective harm reduction strategies and increased access to substance-use treatment in the criminal justice system.

Fatal drug overdoses in Montezuma County have increased in the past eight years, Deavers said.

From 2019 to 2021, an average of eight people died per year, up from six in both 2017 and 2018 and four in 2015. In 2016, 11 people died of drug overdoses in Montezuma County.