Data on drug seizures in Routt County raise fentanyl concern |

Data on drug seizures in Routt County raise fentanyl concern

According to data provided by local law enforcement agencies, fentanyl is becoming more and more pervasive in Routt County.

With almost a month and a half left in the year, Steamboat Springs police report the department has seized almost twice as much Fentanyl in 2022 as it did in 2021 — up from 38 grams of suspected Fentanyl last year to 69 grams so far this year.

Those numbers could indicate local law enforcement is getting better at finding the drug, but it also suggests that fentanyl is here and not in scarcity.

Since the beginning of 2021, Steamboat Springs police have confiscated 107 grams of suspected fentanyl — the most by weight of any drug the department has seized except for psylocibin mushrooms, which takes a relatively heavy dose size in terms of size to affect a person. Still, more fentanyl has been confiscated by police this year than cocaine or methamphetamine.

A sheet of data regarding suspected drug seizures provided by the Steamboat Springs Police Department and the Routt County Sheriff’s Office, Nov. 22, 2022. Drugs are identified as “suspected” because they must be tested at a forensics lab to be proven as the drug in question.
Graphic by Shelby Reardon

“(Steamboat’s) been known for cocaine,” said Routt County Undersheriff Doug Scherar, who won November’s election to become sheriff. “It‘s in the bars.”

Scherar said Steamboat was known for marijuana before pot was legalized and methamphetamines have had a presence in the county for some time as well. However, Scherar said he’s extremely concerned about fentanyl.

In the county, the Routt County Sheriff’s Office confiscated 49.2 grams of suspected fentanyl over the course of 11 cases since 2021. The sheriff’s office data spans from Jan. 1, 2021, to Oct. 17.

“I’m pretty passionate about this fentanyl thing because there’s just been so many unnecessary deaths where people think they’re taking something else and they die because such a small amount of fentanyl is fatal,” Scherar said. 

In February, five people died of unintentional overdoses in Commerce City using taking cocaine laced with fentanyl, which is reportedly 50 times more potent than heroine.

According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, fentanyl deaths rose 70% in Colorado from 2020 to 2021, with about 900 deaths last year.

According to the city’s data, seizures of suspected methamphetamine and cocaine in Steamboat were close to fentanyl by weight, though that’s a troublesome comparison because different drugs have different doses and fentanyl pills are notorious for having varying amounts of the active drug from one pill to another, especially when manufactured illicitly. 

According to local law enforcement, police seized 89.8 grams of suspected methamphetamine since the beginning of last year and 102.4 grams of cocaine in that same timespan. The sheriff’s office, meanwhile, seized 62.05 grams of suspected meth and 138.07 grams of cocaine.

The sheriff’s office saw six cases where cocaine was discovered, 16 cases involving the seizure of meth, the most of any drug, and 11 cases where fentanyl was involved.

In May, Gov. Jared Polis signed House Bill 1326 imposing stricter criminal penalties for possessing fentanyl and fentanyl compounds. In 2019, Polis signed a bill that declared it a misdemeanor to possess up to four grams of most drugs, but the new bill makes it a class 4 felony for possessing between one to four grams of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. 

Under that same bill, the penalties for fentanyl possession apply even if the defendant was unaware he or she had the drug, perhaps because it was mixed with something else, which is a change from an earlier version of the bill that required people to knowingly possess fentanyl or a fentanyl compound in order to be charged with a felony for possession over one gram with no intent to distribute.  

As a compromise, juries can reduce possession charges from a felony to a misdemeanor if jurors believe the defendant really didn’t know about the fentanyl that was in his or her possession.  

The penalties of synthetic opioids are based on the aggregate weight of the compounded substance, not the amount of the drug itself, meaning that having a couple half-gram pills with fentanyl mixed in is a felony, regardless of the amount of fentanyl in each pill. 

Determining the type of drugs in a substance can be difficult. Typically, law enforcement officers mix the substance in question with a specialized reagent meant to react to a specific drug, and most drugs are never sent to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation’s labs. 

Scherar said getting drugs confirmed at the CBI labs typically happens when cases go to trial and the defense files a motion to test the substance in question. 

“If they end up not going to trial — the person pleas out or for whatever reason — the DEA might dismiss the case, then we never know 100% sure that’s what it is,” he said.

The undersheriff said he has never seen a substance test positive in a field test and come back negative at the CBI lab. He said the sheriff’s office has opiate-specific test kits that can examine whether a drug such as cocaine is laced with fentanyl. 

However, Scherar said those specialized field tests have limitations, as the amount of fentanyl in a substance relative to the other stuff is typically very small and it’s possible the field tests can fail to detect it. 

“Usually if cocaine is laced with fentanyl, it’s mostly cocaine — and all the other crap they dilute it with, wherever it came from,” Scherar said, explaining that identifying and measuring every trace of every substance in the evidence rooms’ powder-filled bags simply isn’t possible. 

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