Sep 23, 2022 - News

Denver District Attorney Beth McCann wages new fight against fentanyl

Illustration of an hourglass full of pills that have almost run out.

Illustration: Victoria Ellis/Axios

Denver's district attorney plans to take "aggressive" action to fight fentanyl dealers as the epidemic of overdose fatalities tied to the synthetic substance worsens statewide.

Why it matters: In Colorado and across the country, the deadly drug is increasingly putting youths at risk, particularly as they return to school — where they may encounter the opioid laced with other substances, Axios Vitals' Tina Reed writes.

State of play: Denver DA Beth McCann, a Democrat, is asking for $300,500 out of the city's budget next year to add four positions — two investigators and two attorneys — to assist with what she calls a record number of fentanyl-involved cases.

  • With extra hands — and new teeth from the fentanyl legislation state lawmakers passed earlier this year — McCann is aiming to ramp up "aggressive prosecution" for anyone caught dealing the drug in the city, she tells Axios Denver.
  • She'll also increasingly look to grand juries due to their subpoena powers, she says, which can force suspected criminals into court and unlock new evidence, including cell phone data.

Yes, but: McCann supported parts of the highly controversial fentanyl bill that lowers Level 4 drug felonies to misdemeanors if those convicted of possessing between 1 gram and 4 grams of fentanyl go through treatment.

By the numbers: McCann's office saw case filings involving fentanyl soar by nearly 300% between 2019 and 2021, totaling 340 cases filed.

  • In that same period, deaths in Denver involving fentanyl skyrocketed to 312% with 239 fatalities in 2021, city data shows.

What they're saying: Local health officials say fentanyl is often found in counterfeit pills disguised as ADHD or pain medicine, as well as in heroin and powders.

  • Unlike some parts of the country, Colorado has not verified any incident of fentanyl laced in cannabis products, Denver health department spokesperson Emily Williams tells Axios.

Threat level: Multiple Colorado teenagers have died this year from fentanyl overdoses. Last month, a 13-year-old died from an accidental fentanyl overdose during his first week in eighth grade at Aurora Hills Middle School.

  • Earlier this month, federal officials issued a warning about a new "rainbow" fentanyl pill that could be used to lure teens. The drug has been seized in more than a dozen states.

What's next: Denver City Council members kick off budget hearings today to review funding requests from the 781-page document, including McCann's request for more staff.

  • All proposed changes are due back to the mayor by Oct. 11, and council members must approve the budget by Nov. 7.

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