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Fentanyl seizures surge in Colorado as cartels spread to new regions, DEA says

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Colorado is experiencing record seizures of fentanyl, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, who attributed some of the rise to cartels spreading into new regions and distributing larger volumes of the drug.

DEA spokesman Dave Olesky, who is also the Acting Special Agent in Charge of the Rocky Mountain Field Division, said his investigators conduct drug busts across Utah, Wyoming and Montana and are reporting more signs of cartel activity.

Olesky explained that agents have noticed drugs typically associated with cartels in eastern Washington coming into the state of Montana.

“We have also seen local street gangs that might be more common in Detroit and the East Coast actually coming into the state of Montana to compete for that territory because the price per pill is so much higher up there,” Olesky added.

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The DEA’s Rocky Mountain Field Division broke its fentanyl seizure record last year, confiscating more than 2.6 million pills in Colorado in 2023. (Drug Enforcement Administration)

The Rocky Mountain Field Division broke its fentanyl seizure record last year, confiscating more than 2.6 million pills in Colorado in 2023, and this year is already on track to surpass that number.

“Quantities of fentanyl that we are seeing now in the Denver area, they used to be, two years ago, typically what you might see in one of the distribution cities down in Phoenix, Los Angeles. But nowadays, those cities are seeing exponential increases in terms of the number of and quantities of fentanyl being seized,” Olesky said, adding that 100,000 quantity seizures are “sadly becoming the norm” in the Denver metro.

Colorado Fentanyl

Drug overdose deaths have spiked from 8.2 per 100,000 people in the year 2000 to 32.6 per 100,000 in 2022, per the CDC. (Drug Enfrocement Administration)

Seven out of every 10 illicit pills now contain a deadly dose of fentanyl, the DEA reported, and because the synthetic pills are cheap to make and easy to become addicted to, there is no shortage of supply and demand.

Olesky said the people selling the pills don’t care if they are safe, only that they make money. He also said the DEA is investigating criminal organizations in China that play a role in the fentanyl crisis by helping cartels produce the drug for cheap.

“The Mexican drug trafficking organizations are able to produce this as simply as whether it’s a super lab or a garage in Mexico,” Olesky said.

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Fentanyl pills are deadly

In fall 2023, only about half of illicit pills contained a deadly dose of fentanyl – now it’s nearly 70% of illicit pills, according to the DEA. (Drug Enforcement Administration)

Jason Mikesell, the sheriff in Teller County, Colorado, said he believes the migrant crisis at the southern border has contributed to the fentanyl surge in Colorado despite the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection trying to stop the drug from entering the country.

“Why do we see such a huge rise in Colorado with fentanyl? We are 10 hours from El Paso. They are coming here as a place that’s supposedly going to house them,” Mikesell said.

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Olesky, on the other hand, believes multiple factors have led to the surge.

“Certainly there is a border piece to this, but then there’s also got to be the outreach piece, the education piece,” Olesky said.

Since the pills can be disguised well, sometimes even packaged in bright colors to attract children, Olesky said one of the best ways to prevent fentanyl poisoning is to talk about it and its dangers.

Rainbow colored fentanyl seizures

The DEA warned that cartels sell multicolored fentanyl pills, which can attract children. (Drug Enforcement Administration)

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Drug overdoses, largely driven by fentanyl, are the leading cause of death for adults ages 18 to 45, according to the CDC. 

From the year 2000 to 2022, the rate of drug overdose deaths nearly quadrupled from 8.2 per 100,000 people to 32.6 per 100,000, the agency reported.


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