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Colorado heroin consortium to focus on dealers, not users

Author: Joey Bunch - April 17, 2018 - Updated: April 18, 2018

heroin abuseDouglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock (Photo by Joey Bunch/Colorado Politics)

If you’re a heroin user, you have a better chance of getting help in Colorado now. If you’re a dealer, your chances of going to federal prison are increasing.

Local, state and federal authorities announced the new initiative Tuesday morning at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver to keep those promises.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell the difference between users and dealers,” said Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock.

The new initiative, called the Heroin Impact Project, will be made up of two parts: Operation Helping Hand and Operation Poison Pusher.

Helping Hand reaches out to assist those affected by heroin and fentanyl, while Poison Pusher aims to take out the source of the illegally available drugs.

U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer said drug dealers are businessmen who will find an increasingly unwelcome climate in Colorado.

“They make a decision about the distribution of their product based on factors like law enforcement resources and ability to detect and punish their behavior,” he said.

Troyer said his office and other prosecutors will work together to inflict the harshest punishment possible, including getting cases into court where drug dealers are more likely to serve longer sentences without the chance for parole.

Cops, prosecutors and those providing treatment to addicts are fed up with the growing epidemic of addiction and death, Troyer said.

“This is not a mass-incarceration argument,” he said. “This is an exacting, targeted focus on those causing the most harm on the supply side. We’re doing it aggressively, because no matter what you think of the war on drugs, it’s been proven that punishment of this targeted type deters the distribution of poison in our community.”

Those who are addicts won’t get immunity in drug courts, but cops and prosecutors will connect them with services like Colorado’s 24-hour crisis hotline staffed with trained professionals (1-844-493-8255).

“If we had a viral pandemic in this country, what would we do?” asked Tom Gorman, director of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area law enforcement coalition. “We would be mustering our resources and doing everything we can, if we had this pandemic killing tens of thousands of our people.”

He said the government would get help for those with the deadly virus and “try to knock out the source of this virus.”

The initiative will focus the resources of the 10 members of the Colorado Consortium of Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention on heroin and the powerful painkiller fentanyl.

The group collectively spends about $4 million a year, and the heroin effort will rely on that existing budget.

The federal budget this year includes about $6 billion to fight heroin abuse and crimes, with increases expected next year, said retired Navy Admiral Sandy Winnefeld, who co-chairs the national SAFE Project, an acronym from stop the addiction fatality epidemic.

“That’s not enough, but it’s a good start,” he said. “We’re going to be watching very carefully how that money is being used.”

Winnefeld is a national leader in the fight now. His 19-year-old son, Jonathan, was a University of Denver freshman last September when he was found unresponsive in a dorm room, dead from an accidental overdose of heroin infused with the fentanyl. His son had completed 15 months in drug rehabilitation programs just a few months earlier.

Drug overdoses were linked to more than 64,000 deaths nationally in 2016, and in Colorado, heroin overdose deaths increased 42 percent between 2015 and 2016.

There were 2,795 non-fatal heroin overdose emergency department visits in Colorado from 2011 to 2016, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

In 2016 alone authorities know of 3,465 times that an overdose antidote drug likely saved a life during a heroin overdose, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Colorado.

“There’s a lot that can be done at the federal level and a lot that can be done at the state level, but we’re going to win this at the community level, which is what this thing is all about,” Winnefeld said.

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.