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Denver sees increase in overdose deaths, national deaths decrease

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Preliminary data from the city of Denver shows 597 people died in 2023 from a drug overdose. Nearly 400 of those deaths were from fentanyl.

DENVER — For the first time in years, the number of deadly drug overdoses in the U.S. is dropping. In Denver, though, that number is increasing. 

New data from the CDC shows nationally, more than 107,000 people died from an overdose in 2023. That’s the first drop in deaths since 2018.

Preliminary data from the city of Denver shows 597 people died in 2023 from a drug overdose. Nearly 400 of those deaths were from fentanyl.

“We’re angry. The grief has made us so angry. Because it doesn’t have to be like this,” said Lisa Raville, executive director of the Harm Reduction Action Center. 

Raville said she’s seen firsthand the severity of the problem.

“These are people I know, love and serve that are dying of very preventable overdoses and they’re dying publicly,” Raville said. 

“Overdose continues to be the leading cause of death of our unhoused neighbors in Denver, not only for the last seven years but also for 2024,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be like this.”

Statewide, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported 1,865 people died of a drug overdose in 2023. Nearly 1,300 of those involved an opioid and 1,097 of those deaths involved some form of fentanyl. 

Raville said this is a public health crisis that demands a public health approach.

She feels the city and state’s policies and laws targeting drug users aren’t helping. Instead, she said, new laws are deterring drug users from calling 911 if they see someone overdose.

“Because of that fentanyl criminalization bill in 2022 that we have fentanyl drug induced homicides in the state, meaning every fentanyl overdose death is a murder investigation,” she said. “You don’t get the cartel that way. You don’t get mid-level sellers. You get low-level sellers like friends and family members.”

Few cases have been brought under that law statewide. Here in Denver, a spokesperson for District Attorney Beth McCann’s office said they haven’t brought any cases under that law.

The spokesperson said the law is helpful, but they haven’t been able to use it as they’d hoped to, because often the medical examiner cannot say fentanyl was a person’s sole cause of death. 

Instead, they’re using regular distribution laws to indict and prosecute dealers. 

Raville said harm reduction initiatives like overdose prevention centers could help those dying on Denver’s streets. Simply being able to access treatment immediately is important, too. 

She said more needs to be done on all levels if we want to turn this deadly trend around. 

“We don’t feel like this should have to affect your family for you to care,” Raville said. “We don’t think people should have to die of a preventable overdose. That is not controversial. That is not radical. That is exactly what we’re supposed to be doing today for a healthier or safer community.”

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Denver sees increase in overdose deaths, national deaths decrease

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