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United States Attorney for the District of Colorado Cole Finegan answers questions about the significant increase of recent fentanyl seizures and overdoses seen by law enforcement during a press conference on Wednesday, June 1, 2022, at the Colorado State Patrol Academy gymnasium in Golden, Colo. (Timothy Hurst/The Denver Gazette)

GOLDEN — The Colorado State Patrol has already seized more fentanyl pills in 2022 than it did in 2021, state officials said Wednesday morning, and fatal overdoses linked to the drug are expected to increase again this year.

Five months into 2022, more than 2.08 million pills containing fentanyl have been seized by the patrol this year, compared to 1.66 million in 2021, Col. Matthew Packard told reporters Wednesday morning. Keith Weis, who runs the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, called the recent increase "really staggering."

"Concurrently, it's also expected that the numbers of fatal drug overdoses related to fentanyl will climb well beyond the numbers reported by (state health authorities) in 2021," he said during a news conference that also featured the the U.S. attorney's office in Denver and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. 

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Photographs of recently seized fentanyl and charts showing a significant increase in overdoses and seizures of fentanyl are displayed behind Colorado State Patrol Col. Matthew C. Packard during a press conference on Wednesday, June 1, 2022, at the Colorado State Patrol Academy gymnasium in Golden, Colo. (Timothy Hurst/The Denver Gazette)

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FBI Denver Division assistant special agent in charge Lenny Corrollo talks about the significant increase of recent fentanyl seizures and overdoses seen by law enforcement during a press conference on Wednesday, June 1, 2022, at the Colorado State Patrol Academy gymnasium in Golden, Colo. (Timothy Hurst/The Denver Gazette)

Fatal overdoses in Colorado tied to fentanyl steadily rose for several years before exploding in 2020, which officials have attributed to the pandemic and to a shifting, increasingly unstable drug supply from Mexican drug cartels. They reached their highest point, both in Colorado and nationwide, in 2021: Nine hundred and seven Coloradans fatally overdosed after ingesting fentanyl last year, a 66% increase from 2020 and quadruple the total from 2019. 

Officials, both from law enforcement and from organizations that work directly with drug users, say fentanyl pills are widely and cheaply available. They've largely replaced heroin as the primary opioid on the illicit market, and fentanyl powder is increasingly found mixed into other drugs, like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine — often without the user's knowledge.

Law enforcement officials have noticed the ever-growing amount of seizures for months. David Olesky, with the Denver office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said in late February that in years past, if the agency "had a (seizure) of 100 of these pills or even a 1,000, it was celebratory event because it was so rare."

At that point, more than 800,000 pills had been seized in Colorado between Oct. 1 and late February, he said.

Law enforcement officials know they're not catching all of the pills, as evidenced by the growing number of seizures and growing number of overdoses. But just how many is unclear, officials said Wednesday. 

"It's a drop in the bucket," Packard said of the number of pills seized. "It's not fun to say, but that's the god's-honest truth." 

Debate on how to address the crisis dominated this year's legislative session, with lawmakers passing a bill at the 11th hour last month. Part of that bill, which Gov. Jared Polis has signed into law, is increasing penalties for people who distribute a substance containing fentanyl that led to someone's death.

That hadn't existed in state law before, but federal authorities have the ability to charge dealers with causing a death. Cole Finegan, the U.S. attorney for Colorado, told reporters that his office achieved its first death-resulting-in conviction last year. Another 14 people have been indicted since on a similar charge relating to fentanyl. He said his office is prioritizing fentanyl cases; 50 indictments were handed down in 2021 alone, more than any other year. 

Health reporter

Seth Klamann is the health reporter for the Gazette, focused on COVID-19, public health and substance use. He's a Kansas City native and a University of Missouri alum, with stops in Wyoming, Omaha and Milwaukee before moving to Denver.

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