Breaking the silence: Steamboat Springs is not immune to national health crisis

Steamboat Springs community begins to address national issue of opiate addiction

Lisa Schlichtman
Mara Rhodes sorts through photographs of her brother Mark, who died from an accidental opiate overdose in the fall of 2014. In the wake of her brother's death, Rhodes is helping lead a community effort in Steamboat Springs and Routt County to raise awareness about the dangers of prescription pills and heroin use.
John F. Russell

Where to get help

■ Mind Springs Health offers a 24/7 crisis line at 888-207-4004.

■ Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration’s website at findtreatment.sam... or call 800-662-HELP for list of locations of residential, outpatient and hospital inpatient treatment programs for drug addiction throughout the country.

■ The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK offers help with drug and alcohol abuse and can connect individuals with a nearby professional. provides information and resources on teen drug use and addiction for parents to help them prevent and intervene in their children’s drug use or find treatment for a child who needs it. They offer a toll-free helpline for parents at 855-378-4373.

■ The American Society of Addiction Medicine, at, is a society of physicians aimed at increasing access to addiction treatment. Its website includes a nationwide directory of addiction medicine professionals.

■ Narcotics Anonymous, at, provides information and support for recovering addicts with a link to meetings across the U.S.

— It was a surreal moment for Dr. David Wilkinson, as he watched a security video captured by a camera outside the emergency room doors at Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs.

“A beat-up, four-door sedan drives up, the back door opens and someone pushes a 20-year-old to the curb and then drives away,” Wilkinson recalls. “He’s unconscious, not breathing.”

The young man had overdosed on heroin, and his friends, concerned about legal issues, left him for dead outside the hospital.

“We resuscitated him, and he’s alive,” Wilkinson said.

The incident seemed to Wilkinson like something that would happen in an inner city neighborhood, not a ski town in the Colorado Rockies.

“It really brought the problem home for me,” Wilkinson said.

Since that incident last summer, Wilkinson has watched similar scenarios play out numerous times. It’s one of the reasons he has become involved in The Foundry, a new 12-bed inpatient addictions treatment facility — the first of its kind in Steamboat Springs and Northwest Colorado.

He serves as the facility’s medical director and is actively participating in a new Rx Task Force that was formed in November to address the problem of opiate and heroin addiction in Routt County.

“This community has 100 percent been affected; I see it on a daily basis — the abuse of alcohol and drugs,” Wilkinson said. “It’s here, and the problem isn’t going to go away, and we don’t have a lot of time.”

A national epidemic

The problem Wilkinson describes is the link between opiate addiction, heroin use and the skyrocketing number of drug overdose deaths occurring in the United States.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, from 2001 to 2014, there was a 3.4-fold increase in the total number of overdose deaths from prescription opioid pain relievers in the U.S. The number of deaths from heroin during that time period increased six-fold.

In a Jan. 16 article, the New York Times reported on its analysis of nearly 60 million death certificates collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 1990 to 2014. The newspaper’s research revealed the death rates for young white adults age 25 to 34 were rising to levels not seen since the AIDS epidemic. The increase was directly linked to drug overdose deaths.

According to the New York Times article, the overdose death rate for whites age 25 to 34 was five times what it was in 1999, and the rate of overdose deaths among whites age 35 to 44 tripled during that period. Those deaths were due to overdoses from both illegal and prescription drugs.

Heroin use, which can be linked to an addiction to prescription opiates, such as Oxycontin and Vicodin, is also on the rise.

The CDC reports heroin use has more than doubled among young adults age 18 to 25 in the past decade. And as a result of the increased usage, heroin overdose deaths nearly quadrupled, with more than 8,200 people dying in 2013. Those numbers continue to climb.

Drug overdose became the leading cause of injury death in 2013, and, according to the CDC, drug overdoses caused more deaths in the U.S. than motor vehicle crashes among people age 25 to 64.

Crisis hits home

These statistics reveal a national problem reaching epidemic levels, and a review of local arrest records shows Steamboat Springs and Routt County are not immune to the issue.

According to Steamboat Springs Police Chief Cory Christensen, the number of heroin-related criminal cases in the city increased significantly in 2015.

Steamboat police officers handled 16 cases involving heroin or opiates this past year — an almost three-fold increase from 2014, when only six heroin- or opiate-related cases were logged by city police officers.

Of the cases in 2015, four were overdoses, two were controlled purchases involving the All Crimes Enforcement Team, three were for drug possession, one was for driving under the influence of drugs and the others were more specific, including a person who discovered their renter smoking heroin and another person who was arrested on charges of prescription fraud, or doctor shopping.

“Drugs are present in Steamboat, and in my opinion, illegal drugs in any community are a problem,” Christensen said. “We don’t have people selling drugs on street corners, and we don’t have crack houses, but there are people in the community selling illegal drugs and buying illegal drugs, and these things are a concern for us.”

Since taking office in January 2011, Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins said he has seen the number of heroin investigations in the county increase.

Since March 2012, Routt County Sheriff’s deputies have arrested 11 adults and one juvenile for possession of heroin, possession of heroin with intent to sell or distribution of heroin. He said these numbers did not include arrests made when someone was in possession of more than one drug.

“These 11 are exclusively heroin,” Wiggins explained. “We could actually have a lot more, because these don’t include the person arrested for meth that also had heroin in their possession.”

Wiggins links the increase in heroin cases to addiction to prescription opiates. He said people can become addicted to medications prescribed to them for pain. Eventually, doctors refuse to refill the prescriptions, and the person, now an addict, turns to heroin, which is cheaper and easier to get, Wiggins said.

“It’s an epidemic, and there are a lot of good people who have had a serious injury and were prescribed painkillers, and before they know it, they’re addicted.”

Marvin Cameron, commander of the All Crimes Enforcement Team that serves Routt and Moffat counties, focuses the task force’s resources on prosecuting people who are dealing drugs locally.

He reports a small but steady increase in the number of heroin distribution cases filed in his jurisdiction.

In 2012, there were four heroin distribution cases filed in Routt County, and in 2013 and 2014, the number dropped to two cases both years. This past year, ACET was involved in six different heroin distribution cases in Routt County, and for the first time, had three cases in Moffat County.

“Heroin has gone from Routt County to Moffat County in the last year or so,” Cameron said.

“Also, the state has clamped down on prescription medications through the prescription drug monitoring program, and doctors are doing a better job of prescribing,” Cameron said. “Today, it’s easier and cheaper to get heroin — at least that’s what I understand.”

Cameron said the heroin in Steamboat Springs and Routt County is primarily coming from the Denver metro area and Grand Junction.

According to a report issued this month by the State of Colorado’s Substance Abuse Trend and Response Task Force, the largest heroin bust in the history of the Rocky Mountain Region occurred in May 2015. The investigation, which was coordinated by federal and state agencies including the DEA, the FBI and the Northern Colorado Drug Task Force, led to the arrest of 24 individuals on drug trafficking charges and netted 273 pounds of brown heroin with an estimated street value of $40 million and $2.3 million in cash.

The most recent heroin arrest in Routt County occurred in October, when 23.5 grams of suspected heroin was seized during a traffic stop. According to the investigator in the case, the heroin was being brought to Steamboat from Denver.

The sheriff said he is also concerned about the people who are dying from drug overdoses in the Routt County area.

“We have had some overdoses where people have had heroin in their systems,” Wiggins said. “In many of the cases, the people have a smorgasbord of drugs in their system. We also have had some very young people die from drug overdoses, which is very concerning.”

A parents’ worst nightmare

Leigh and Jarle Halsnes adored their son, Erik. They describe him as high-energy, athletically gifted and empathetic. He grew up in typical Steamboat style — he was a ski racer, competed in motocross, helped out on the family’s ranch and loved the outdoors.

“He had such an amazing childhood,” Leigh said while looking through photos of Erik. “And he had this incredible, compassionate soul.”

Leigh and Jarle use the past tense when they speak about Erik, because on Nov. 23, their son died at age 20, of an accidental drug overdose in his bedroom at the family’s home. The official cause of death was acute morphine toxicity.

“Somehow, Erik crossed paths with someone who had serious drugs,” Jarle said. “And what they gave him killed him.”

“One of Erik’s friends told me that Erik said he had finally gotten something to help him sleep,” Leigh said.

“And it put him to sleep forever,” Jarle added.

Leigh and Jarle don’t think Erik had ever used morphine before, but they do know he was struggling with depression and may have become addicted to opiate painkillers that were initially prescribed to him following a serious traffic crash in February 2015.

In the weeks following the accident, which left Erik with a severe head injury, Leigh said Erik had to be sedated, and he also was prescribed pain medication because he suffered from terrible headaches.

Because Erik was older than 18, he often went to see doctors on his own during his recovery, and in April, Leigh and Jarle discovered those doctors were continuing to refill Erik’s pain medication prescriptions three months after the crash.

“By then, we realized there was a problem,” Jarle said. “I went to the doctors to try to stop them from prescribing pills. I told them, ‘Please don’t do this to my son.’”

Leigh also made a similar plea to Erik’s doctors and called the pharmacy and asked them not to fill any more prescription in Erik’s name.

When Erik died, Jarle said those responding to the call found five empty pill bottles with Erik’s name on the label in his bedroom.

As they grieve the death of their son, Leigh and Jarle are speaking out about the dangers of prescription opiates in the hopes they might spare other families the pain they’re experiencing. They encourage parents to look for signs that their child might be using drugs — signs that Leigh and Jarle missed, because they didn’t know what to look for.

“For a long time, I thought I was seeing head injury symptoms,” Leigh said. “When he couldn’t sleep or he had anxiety or when he was sleeping a lot in the day, I kept thinking it was just the side effects from his accident.”

Jarle said he knew Erik drank beer and smoked pot, but Jarle said he couldn’t tell the difference between a “pot high and a drug high.”

The couple tell parents to look for the “nods,” which is a common sign of heroin or opiate use. A person will fall asleep suddenly, mid-conversation or mid-activity, and then wake up and not know they’d nodded off.

Other signs of drug use, which Leigh and Jarle now recognize in hindsight, included itching and finding small squares of tinfoil and plastic pen casings in Erik’s room.

“I was very concerned and helped get Erik into counseling,” Leigh said. “In Erik’s case, he never looked sick. He wasn’t pale; he seemed healthy. I knew he was struggling, but I thought he would be OK.”

In the weeks preceding his death, Leigh said Erik seemed to be getting better. He secured a job at the ski area, he had picked up his ski pass and he enrolled in winter semester classes at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus.

“He was finally getting his life together after the accident,” Leigh said. “His death was so unintended, so unfair. And part of what makes it so painful is that we didn’t figure out exactly what was happening until it was too late.”

The shame and blame of addiction

Mara Rhodes’ introduction to the world of opiate addiction came through her younger brother Mark’s battle with the disease.

The Steamboat Springs business owner, wife and mother of three said she hadn’t talked to her brother in a year when her parents received a call from Massachusetts, telling them Mark, age 33, had died from an unintentional opiate overdose.

The news came as Rhodes and her parents were cooking dinner in the kitchen of her Steamboat home.

“I had to watch my parents get the news,” Rhodes said. “It is something I wished I hadn’t seen.”

Looking back over her brother’s 10-year addiction to prescription pain medication and then heroin, Rhodes is haunted by the fact that, even though he remained clean an entire year before his death, she never got to tell her brother “good job” during that time.

After his fifth stint in rehab, Rhodes thought it was her time to pull back, and she chose to remove herself as part of his support system.

“Over those 10 years, my brother and I went through a lot of ups and downs,” Rhodes said. “As a sibling, I thought, maybe this time I won’t be supportive, and maybe that will make the difference — maybe that will help him change.

“I spent so many years worried about my brother. … I wanted to save him. But in the end, I realized there was very little I could do.”

In the aftermath of her brother’s death, Rhodes was faced with the harsh reality that she knew little about her brother’s addiction, and part of her grieving process involved educating herself about opiates.

What Rhodes discovered was terrifying, and along the way, she realized people in Steamboat weren’t talking about the issue.

“The piece I can contribute is not that my brother ended up dead but that I didn’t know,” Rhodes said. “I spent so much time frustrated that he couldn’t get it together. The truth is that opiates totally take over your life. My brother’s brain was hijacked. He was not in control, and it was easier for me to hold onto how he should get his (expletive) together rather than this could take him down.”

As Rhodes began to share her story with those who would listen, others in the community stepped out to join her in her quest to educate the public, particularly families with young children, about the dangers of prescription drug use.

Soon, a fledgling network of like-minded souls began meeting to discuss the connection between opiates and heroin and the stigma that surrounds addiction.

This group — now known as the Rx Task Force — is in the process of planning a four-part, lunch-and-learn educational series about opiate addiction. Sessions are scheduled for March 2, 9, 16 and 23 at Bud Werner Memorial Library. The campaign is endorsed by Grand Futures Prevention Coalition, The Foundry, Sk8 Church, Mind Springs Health, the city of Steamboat Springs, REPS, Colorado Mountain College, Yampa Valley Medical Center and Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association.

“My brother is just a statistic now. What I want to focus on is how can we keep this from happening to someone else’s child,” said Rhodes, who also is a Grand Futures board member. “I think about my own kids and my friends’ kids, and I see my brother in all of them. He was a really good guy. He never went to jail, he wasn’t violent, he was a talented athlete, and my parents were good parents. This addiction can happen to anyone.

“I don’t want to save the world; I just want people to know the risks and have the facts to understand this stuff is really, really addictive,” Rhodes continued. “It’s a massive epidemic, and it’s being buried because of the stigma.”

On the front lines

Buck Chavarria, pastor of Sk8 Church in Steamboat Springs, has joined Rhodes as a member of the Rx Task Force, and he says drug addiction is an issue with which he’s all too familiar after working with the youth of Steamboat Springs for the past 10 years. Sk8 Church is a local nonprofit that ministers to area youth, with a focus on sharing the Gospel of Christ through a shared love of skateboarding.

“We are a place where people come to get help,” said Chavarria, who has helped dozens of people get into rehab for drug addiction during his years of ministry.

For Chavarria, it’s time to bring the issue of addiction from darkness to light. He’s tired of speaking at the funerals of young people in the community who have died because of their addiction to opiates and heroin. Throughout the past decade, he’s preached at eight funerals, including Erik Halsnes’ memorial service Dec. 22.

“I think, as a community, it’s not on our radar, so we don’t look for it, and if we don’t look for it, we don’t see it,” Chavarria said. “If you want to find a drunk in this town, it’s easy. If you want to find a stoner, it’s easy. On some level, they’re more socially acceptable. People who use (opiates, heroin) don’t want to be found. They have their own little subculture.

“But when you start to look, you realize there’s a huge problem in this town — enough to be alarmed about,” Chavarria added.

Chavarria explains it’s fairly easy for a teenager to be introduced to opiates.

For kids in Steamboat, that introduction to highly addictive prescription drugs can come through a sports injury, when a doctor legally prescribes an opiate, such as Oxycontin or Percocet, for pain.

Or, as Chavarria explains, kids sell other kids the leftover pills they find in their families’ medicine cabinets.

“It goes like this … there are a couple of kids smoking weed, drinking beer, going to parties,” Chavarria said. “They heard about Oxy, and they heard about kids buying pills. And they know they can get $30 a pill at a party. So they grab some painkillers out of their parents’ medicine cabinet and sell them so they can buy more booze and weed. Now, somebody in that direct line is getting hooked on opiates. That’s how it starts.”

Knowledge is power

Erik Halsnes’ death is evidence that kids growing up in idyllic Steamboat Springs can become hooked on opiates and die of a drug overdose, but actual statistics about opiate use, abuse and addiction in Northwest Colorado are hard to find.

Where to get help

■ Mind Springs Health offers a 24/7 crisis line at 888-207-4004.

■ Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration’s website at findtreatment.sam… or call 800-662-HELP for list of locations of residential, outpatient and hospital inpatient treatment programs for drug addiction throughout the country.

■ The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK offers help with drug and alcohol abuse and can connect individuals with a nearby professional. provides information and resources on teen drug use and addiction for parents to help them prevent and intervene in their children’s drug use or find treatment for a child who needs it. They offer a toll-free helpline for parents at 855-378-4373.

■ The American Society of Addiction Medicine, at, is a society of physicians aimed at increasing access to addiction treatment. Its website includes a nationwide directory of addiction medicine professionals.

■ Narcotics Anonymous, at, provides information and support for recovering addicts with a link to meetings across the U.S.

Ken Davis, outreach coordinator at the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, hopes to change that.

He was hired in September to administer a public health grant the VNA received from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. One of his main tasks involves creating a baseline assessment of opiate use, misuse and addiction and then making recommendations on how the community could respond to the issue.

To date, Davis said he has interviewed more than 200 people representing various segments of the community, including doctors, law enforcement, nonprofit organizations focused on health and education, teachers, treatment providers and pharmacists.

“Universally, people say it is a problem,” Davis said. “Of the people I’ve interviewed, I’ve yet to find someone who says opiate use isn’t an issue.”

As a state, Colorado ranks 13th in the nation when it comes to the number of prescription pill overdose deaths, which is an improvement compared to 2014 rankings, when Colorado was second.

“It’s not that our rates have gone down,” Davis explained. “Our rates continue to increase, but now, other state’s rates have increased faster than ours.”

The connection between prescription drug use and heroin use is strong. According to Davis, 45 percent of people who die from heroin overdoses have at one time misused prescription drugs.

“Having said that, 30 percent of people who are chronic users of opiates end up misusing them,” Davis said. “It’s now more likely someone will die from an overdose of prescription medication than from a motor vehicle accident.”

Another part of the state grant Davis is administering requires him to hold a community education event, and through the work of the Rx Task Force, plans for that event are underway.

Davis is encouraged by the work started by the task force, and he thinks the group’s mission is perfectly aligned with the VNA grant.

“This is actually more than I hoped for,” Davis said. “I’m excited by the energy, the commitment. It gives me hope.”

For Chavarria, one answer to combatting this growing problem of opiate addiction among local youth and adults lies in removing the “shame and blame” and breaking down barriers to recovery.

“As you raise awareness, the problem begins to surface, and as a community, you need to make a choice to do something about it,” Chavarria said. “We can band together and say ‘not our town’ and really address it and bring it to light. But if we don’t do that, we become a community that is blind to the world around us.

“We have plenty of money and intelligent people and opportunities here … now’s the time. And the good thing about a small town is it doesn’t take much to have a huge impact. If we hit something head on, it doesn’t take much to make a difference.”

To reach Lisa Schlichtman, call 970-871-4221, email or follow her on Twitter @LSchlichtman

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