Jan 8, 2024 - News

Fatal drug overdoses soar in Denver

Fatal drug overdoses in Denver annually
Data: Denver Department of Public Health and Environment; Note: Figures from 2023 are preliminary and subject to change; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Harm Reduction Action Center executive director Lisa Raville has spent her career working to avoid the troubling situation Denver now faces — 522 fatal drug overdoses last year, a 15% increase from 2022.

Why it matters: It's a record number for the city, and now makes overdoses the leading cause of death for people experiencing homelessness, Raville tells us.

Between the lines: The sharp rise is fueled by fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid that can be used in pill and powdered form.

  • Deaths involving it rose by a staggering 40% in 2023 compared to 2022.

State of play: Denver will begin testing wastewater for fentanyl this year, Axios has learned, to help monitor the drug's prevalence.

  • Kalyn Horst, substance use and prevention manager with the city's public health department, says this will help detect how much of the opioid is in the local drug supply.

The intrigue: Horst said the city is working to get testing strips for xylazine, the so-called "zombie drug," and barrier masks to make it easier for people to provide emergency aid.

What they're saying: "It doesn't have to be like this," Raville says.

  • She supports creating an overdose prevention center — also called supervised use sites — allowing people to use drugs under supervision from trained professionals. She also wants to see a regulated drug supply.

Zoom in: 311 people experiencing homelessness died last year — a record, according to advocates — with a majority dying from overdoses, according to city data.

  • "Denver needs to try to do better to help the homeless community," Gloriane Olivas told the Denver Post last month during a vigil for her son, Joseph, who died of a fentanyl overdose.

Of note: Denver is using a combination of money from a multimillion-dollar opioid settlement led by the Colorado Attorney General's Office, and grant money from the CDC to pay for services and resources to address the drug crisis.

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