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No, DEA didn’t seize enough fentanyl in 2023 to kill everyone in Colorado ’36 times over’

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No, DEA didn’t seize enough fentanyl in 2023 to kill everyone in Colorado ’36 times over’

Jun 21, 2024 | 4:11 pm ET
By Chase Woodruff
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No, DEA didn’t seize enough fentanyl in 2023 to kill everyone in Colorado ’36 times over’
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Counterfeit pills containing fentanyl seized by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. (DEA)

A conservative think tank’s false claim about the amount of fentanyl seized by the Drug Enforcement Administration in Colorado last year is being spread by media and political figures.

The Common Sense Institute’s eye-catching assertion that the DEA seized enough fentanyl to “kill every Coloradan 36 times over” headlined a report it released this week on the costs of the synthetic opioid crisis. A CSI researcher led off an interview with Fox31 in Denver on Thursday repeating the claim, and it was cited in a Friday editorial by the conservative Colorado Springs Gazette editorial board.

But the claim rests on an elementary misunderstanding of the data reported by the DEA and the form in which fentanyl is most commonly used and distributed. Calculations included in the report, authored by CSI economist Steven Byers and former Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, show that the authors assumed the 425 kilograms of fentanyl pills seized in Colorado in 2023 represented pure fentanyl.

Steffan Tubbs, the DEA’s Rocky Mountain Field Division spokesperson, confirmed to Newsline that its “stats do not reflect pure fentanyl.” It’s rare for law enforcement agencies in the U.S. to seize fentanyl in its pure, powder form, which is far more often pressed into counterfeit prescription pills by cartels in Mexico before being trafficked across the border. Counterfeit pills range from about 30 to about 300 milligrams in size, and DEA testing has shown that they may contain anywhere from 20 micrograms to 5.1 milligrams of fentanyl.

If all 2.61 million pills seized by the DEA in Colorado last year contained 2 milligrams of fentanyl — considered a potentially fatal dose, especially for first-time users — their total lethal dosage is more than 80 times smaller than what CSI’s report claimed.

Following a Newsline inquiry, the group updated the report’s findings to read: “Depending on the purity of the seized drugs, 2023’s seizures could be enough to kill every Coloradan 36 times or to kill one in every three Coloradans.” But even at the upper limit of 5.1 milligrams per pill, the seized drugs would contain only about 6.5 fatal million doses. Colorado’s population is 5.9 million.

Deaths from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids made up nearly two-thirds of the 1,957 fatal overdoses reported in Colorado in 2023, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though routinely and safely used in clinical settings like hospitals, synthetic opioids have fueled a crisis in accidental overdoses due in large part to their extremely high potency in small doses. Many people with opioid use disorders have turned to the drugs in the wake of a federal crackdown on traditional prescription opioids like OxyContin, and they are also frequently mixed into other illicit drugs and consumed unknowingly by users.

Confusion over the different ways of measuring fentanyl by weight has plagued public debate over policy responses to the overdose crisis, including Colorado lawmakers’ reversal in 2022 of a law that reclassified possession of under 4 grams of illicit drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Proponents of reversing the 2019 decriminalization measure repeatedly made the misleading claim that 4 grams of the drug was equal to 2,000 lethal doses. But because the law applies to the total or “compound” weight of drugs in a person’s possession, the 4-gram threshold meant that a person with as few as 10 or 15 counterfeit pills containing fentanyl could be charged with a felony. Under the new 1-gram felony threshold enacted by large bipartisan majorities in the Legislature in 2022, the number is even lower.

Misleading lethal-dose statistics and other myths about fentanyl — including widespread fear of “passive exposure” to aerosolized fentanyl powder or through skin contact, which toxicologists say is virtually impossible — risk harming people in need of emergency treatment by making bystanders and first responders more hesitant to intervene, according to medical experts.