Four Summit County deaths linked to drug overdoses
Four overdose fatalities were reported in Summit County this fall, as three Summit County men and one Park County man reportedly suffered accidental, drug-related deaths.
On July 30, a 32-year-old Park County man died after he was left outside of St. Anthony Summit Medical Center. A toxicology report determined that he had overdosed on opioids, likely heroin that he had purchased off the street, according to a Summit County Coroner’s report.
“The sad part is if they would have called 911 in Park County instead of driving him over here, he might have had a much better chance of survival,” Summit County Coroner Regan Wood said.
On Aug. 3, a 62-year-old Summit County man overdosed on prescription drugs purchased online, likely benzodiazepines, a type of psychoactive drug.
Just a month later, on Sept. 26, two additional fatalities surfaced, after a 21-year-old and a 27-year-old man died after injecting an unknown substance. Toxicology results are still pending.
“Unfortunately, with a lot of overdoses, you’re left hanging with how did this happen, where did they get it from and other contributing factors,” Summit County Sheriff John Minor said. “These are just the fatalities.”
He added that his office would continue to work with federal agencies to track down the source of the drugs.
“Drug dealing today has taken on modern tools,” he said. “You can buy drugs in all manner of ways. There is a black market within a black market. It’s very interesting in today’s day and age, and, boy, is it a challenge.”
He noted that the recent fatalities were unusually high in number for Summit County.
“Even one fatality is one too many,” he said.
A STATEWIDE EPIDEMIC
According to the Colorado Department of Public Health, poisoning is the leading cause of accidental death in the state, surpassing vehicle accidents in 2005. Last year, drugs and medications contributed to 87 percent of all poisoning deaths in Colorado.
“We’re in the midst of an overdose epidemic in the U.S. and in the state of Colorado,” said Lisa Raville, Executive Director at the Denver-based Harm Reduction Action Center. “The overdoses are getting out of control.”
She added that the four leading causes of overdose deaths were using drugs alone, mixing drugs, variation in drug quality and varying levels of tolerance.
For example, after a period of abstinence, a user has an increased chance of overdosing because their body can no longer handle the same quantity of a substance.
“They think they can go back out there,” Wood explained, “get some more drugs, do it at the same rate or dose that they did before, and their bodies just can’t take it.”
In addition, Raville noted that most purchased heroin contains between 2 and 57 percent of pure heroin. Lately, the eastern U.S. has seen a trend of heroin being mixed with fentanyl, a potent opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.
According to an Oct. 26 advisory by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most fentanyl linked to overdose fatalities is illicitly manufactured before it is mixed with heroin or cocaine.
While pharmaceutical-related overdoses have long been an issue in Summit County and across the state, more are turning toward heroin as prescription drugs become less available.
“Now, doctors don’t know what to do with that. They’re cutting access but doesn’t mean people don’t have pain or addiction,” Raville said. “They go to the street to buy oxys, and it’s too expensive.”
The cheaper price of heroin draws in users, with injected black tar heroin being the most common form in Colorado. Of the 870 drug overdose deaths in 2014, opioid pain relievers contributed to 39 percent of the total. The majority of drug overdose deaths — 76 percent — were unintentional, while 19 percent of drug overdoses were classified as suicides and five percent were of undetermined intent.
ACTION AND PREVENTION
Last April, Colorado passed a law that would expand access to naloxone, a medication used to reduce the effects of opioids. Senate Bill 15-053 allows pharmacists to fill naloxone over-the-counter for individuals at risk of overdose, first responders and family members or friends of at-risk individuals.
While naloxone is not yet available without a prescription in Summit County, it is available in several pharmacies on the Front Range, in Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins. The drug costs about $20.
“We need Summit County to have that; we need every single pharmacy to have access to that,” Raville said.
Not only is being properly equipped key to prevention, but communication in the event of an overdose can save a life. According to a 2012 Colorado statute, legal protection is offered for those reporting an overdose so long as the reporting party cooperates with rescuers and police.
“If they have a friend they’re with who overdoses, they should call the authorities,” Fifth Judicial District Attorney Bruce Brown said. “By and large, we are not seeking to be punitive for somebody who is seeking help.”
Across the district, law enforcement seek to offer treatment to users, while tracking back the drugs to the hands of the sellers. He said that while treatment programs can lead to success in recovery, the road is not easy.
“It doesn’t necessarily take on the first time, but that doesn’t mean you give up,” he said. “We know there’s still a lot of lethal heroin in the hands of the community. This is obviously an issue to which we’ve given a lot of consideration and continue to give a lot of attention.”
Removing THE STIGMA
Despite these provisions, many users still opt not to seek out help. Whether out of fear of being caught or of the stigma surrounding drug use, most do not receive the assistance they need.
“We will see people use substances to self-medicate for mental health issues that have not been addressed,” said Kathy Davis, Program Director at Mind Springs Health in Frisco. “It’s really important that we put out there that seeking help for mental-health issues is OK.”
Mind Springs Health offers licensed addictions counselors and a 24-7 detoxification and mental health unit through Summit Safe Haven.
She also encouraged families and loved ones of those struggling with an addiction to seek out help as well.
“I think that’s really important because it can be really stressful when you have a loved one with issues with substances or mental health issues,” she said. “When you’re in the moment and really dealing with these things, it’s hard to remember that.”
She added that opening the conversation about drug abuse would be a first step to a potential recovery.
“We need to deal with this better as a community — really talking about this issue and saving people’s lives is what we need to be doing,” Raville said. “Pretending it’s not happening is not doing any good.
“People are dying, and they don’t have to, and I’m sick of it.”
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