‘The scariest drug I’ve encountered:’ How Eagle County’s drug task force is working to combat transport of fentanyl on I-70

Drug task force has intercepted more than 100 pounds of illegal substances on I-70 this year

Ash Lohmann
Vail Daily

EAGLE COUNTY — Fentanyl remains a major concern among law enforcement and community members as overdose deaths in Colorado and across the country have risen significantly.

The Denver Post reported that in the five-year span between 2017 and 2021, the number of fentanyl deaths in Colorado has “increased more than tenfold” from 81 to 900. Local law enforcement officials said this trend has continued throughout 2022. 

“We’ve seen an absurd amount of fentanyl coming through this valley,” said Alan Hernandez, a detective with the Avon Police Department.

According to the most recent annual data on drug overdoses from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Colorado is No. 29 in statewide overdose deaths per 100,000 persons (West Virginia is No. 1) and No. 24 in total deaths (California is No. 1). According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Colorado is No. 26 for synthetic opioids and fentanyl deaths (Florida is No. 1).

Hernandez expressed concern about the rise of fentanyl busts and overdoses on behalf of local law enforcement during an Avon Police Department Citizen’s Academy lecture. He said that the rates at which fentanyl is being captured by law enforcement are substantial, but that those amounts only account for what is getting caught, adding that there’s no telling how much fentanyl is really traveling through Eagle County on Interstate 70.

The Gore Range Narcotics Interdiction Team is comprised of five specially selected and trained officers from both the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office and the Vail Police Department. The multi-agency team, better known as GRANITE, has seen more than 100 pounds of illegal substances intercepted on I-70 just this year, said Ashley LaFleur, a public information officer with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office.

Dan Loya, an undersheriff with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, said that the quantities of fentanyl that law enforcement has intercepted within Eagle County are never for “personal use.” He said the quantities would be considered large to the naked eye, but understanding that even just a granule of fentanyl can sometimes be enough to be lethal, the volumes seem even more astronomical.

Loya said that I-70, acting as an artery to major cities across the country, puts the Eagle County community at risk. 

“It’s a scary drug,” Loya said. “I’ve been here 26 years and it’s the scariest drug I’ve encountered.”

GRANITE doesn’t only patrol the interstate for illegal substances, Loya said the task force also follows up on intelligence to keep fentanyl and other dangerous drugs out of the community.

Pharmaceutical fentanyl was originally developed for pain management and treatment of cancer and cancer patients and symptoms. However, illicitly made fentanyl is distributed illegally and is a serious public health risk, given its explosive potency.

Additionally, illicit fentanyl is most commonly made as a white powder, which can resemble other drugs like cocaine and can also be pressed into pills and mixed with other drugs, made to look like prescription opioids. 

“Fentanyl-laced drugs are extremely dangerous and many people may be unaware their drugs are laced with fentanyl,” the CDC reports.

According to the CDC, fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. Alongside other synthetic opioids, fentanyl is frequently involved in deaths by overdose. 

“Even in small doses, (fentanyl) can be deadly,” the CDC’s fentanyl fact page reads. “Over 150 people die every day from overdoses related to synthetic opioids like fentanyl.”

Loya said he encourages community members to be alert and aware of fentanyl. He said awareness often goes hand in hand with risk reduction.

There has also been a push in Eagle County to familiarize the public with Naloxone, commonly known as Narcan, a life-saving medication that can reverse opioid overdose, as well as fentanyl test strips.

Maggie Seldeen, who lives in Carbondale, is helping to lead the charge of prevention and harm reduction efforts with her organization, High Rockies Harm Reduction. Seldeen, who lost her mother to an overdose when she was a teenager and has come through her own battles with substance abuse, is determined to educate adolescents and parents about the dangers of pill culture and fentanyl.

“I am particularly passionate about working with adolescents in the hopes that no one ever has to go it alone like I did, that no child ever need lose a parent to an overdose and vice versa,” Seldeen told the Vail Daily in April.

The efforts geared toward awareness and education have gained momentum. Partnering with Starting Hearts, an Eagle County-based nonprofit, High Rockies Harm Reduction has worked to incorporate programming in schools and other educational venues and to get Narcan into Starting Hearts’ more than 450 defibrillator boxes across Eagle County.

Also, at the start of the current school year, Eagle County Schools Superintendent Philip Qualman said the district would be including Narcan in its first aid kids at each of its schools.

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