Inside Denver's Record-Setting Heroin and Fentanyl Overdose Crisis

A container of heroin from Mexico.
CBS News via YouTube
A container of heroin from Mexico.
Colorado set a record for drug overdose deaths in 2020 — even though stats are only available through September — and Denver apparently did, too. While the final figures aren't in yet, it's clear that fentanyl killed more people in the city last year than it did in the previous three years combined, and fatal overdoses related to methamphetamines and heroin are on the rise, too.

Denver registered 284 drug-related deaths through the first eleven months of 2020. That compares to 201 drug-related deaths in all of 2017, 209 in 2018 and 225 in 2019.

This trend is hardly isolated. "Increase in Fatal Drug Overdoses Across the United States Driven by Synthetic Opioids Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic," a December 17 report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, notes that 81,230 drug overdose deaths occurred in the U.S. during the twelve-month period ending in May 2020 — the most recent data available.

"This represents a worsening of the drug overdose epidemic in the United States and is the largest number of drug overdoses for a twelve-month period ever recorded," the CDC states. "After declining 4.1 percent from 2017 to 2018, the number of overdose deaths increased 18.2 percent from the twelve-months ending in June 2019i to the twelve months ending in May 2020. Drug overdose deaths during this time increased more than 20 percent in 25 states and the District of Columbia, 10 percent to 19 percent in eleven states and New York City, and 0 percent to 9 percent in ten states."

A Denver Department of Public Health and Environment roundup attributes much of the rise in overdose deaths in the Mile High City to fentanyl. Excluding incidents deemed suicides by the medical examiner, fentanyl deaths stood at 18 in 2017, 17 in 2018, 56 in 2019 — and 119 through December 4, 2020.

Still, fentanyl is only part of the problem. According to the DDPHE, 64 percent of drug-related deaths in Denver last year showed the presence of an opioid, including 56 percent of the prescription type (heroin was excluded); that compares to 41 percent in 2019. In addition, 60 percent of the 2020 deaths involved three or more drugs in the decedent's system, and 18 percent showed evidence of five or more. Prominent among the narcotics was methamphetamine, which was present in 42 percent, up slightly from 41 percent in 2019.

DDPHE graphics depict the rising trend in Denver deaths involving meth and fentanyl over the past decade-plus:

Another DDPHE graphic reveals the monthly overdose toll, with 2020 flare-ups particularly acute during the months following the COVID-19 lockdown, which got under way in late March.

A common misconception is that overdoses are most common among the homeless population, but that's not borne out by the facts. The Denver Office of the Medical Examiner determined that 85 percent of people who died from a probable drug overdose were not experiencing homelessness.

Indeed, in 64.8 percent of Denver cases, the place of death was an individual's residence, followed by a hospital, at 17.62 percent. Only 10.84 percent of deaths took place outdoors. Other locations included a hotel or motel (5.28 percent), a business (1.06 percent), a rehabilitation center (0.7 percent) or a shelter (0.35 percent).

These statistics are a reminder that drug overdose deaths impact people in every walk of life. And in Denver, they continue to grow.

Click to access the DDHE's report about drug-related deaths in Denver and the CDC health advisory