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Opioid use rising in the Roaring Fork Valley, but meth still the ‘drug of choice’

Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District

On Dec. 28, 2017, the police and EMTs in Carbondale responded to two calls within 90 minutes of each other.

What happened is still under investigation, but it seems two young men overdosed on the painkiller oxycodone.

The man at the first call was already dead when authorities arrived, making him one of the 115 Americans who, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, die each day from opioid overdoses.

The second was alive; EMTs sprayed Narcan, the antidote for opioid overdoses, up his nose and rushed him to the hospital.

Has America’s opioid crisis made its way to the Roaring Fork Valley? For many years, methamphetamine has been the biggest drug on the Western Slope, but opioid use is on the rise. In 2017, the emergency room at Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs admitted more patients who tested positive for opioids than meth.

Carbondale Police Chief Gene Schilling thinks opioid overdoses have increased, but not by a lot. “I don’t know if I’d characterize it as we’ve been hit by the opioid crisis,” he said.


Meth is a different story. His department never saw it a decade ago and now come across it five or six times a year. A spokesperson for the Drug Enforcement Agency in Grand Junction echoed that sentiment: Meth is the biggest drug problem on the Western Slope, most of it coming from Mexico.


Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario doesn’t think the prevalence of meth in the area makes the rising opioid problem any less concerning. Vallario is also chair of TRIDENT, the Two Rivers Drug Enforcement Team, a drug task force made up of law enforcement agencies from Eagle, Pitkin and Garfield Counties.


Opioids, Vallario said, are “more lethal and have a higher potential to kill people than meth” because dealers are lacing what they’re selling with synthetic opioids -- fentanyl and carfentanil -- which are much more potent.


Carfentanil, for example, is an elephant tranquilizer. “So you can imagine what it would do to a normal human being,” Vallario said.


It’s unclear if the two men in Carbondale took pills that were cut with something like fentanyl or carfentanil. Nonetheless, this is why the Carbondale police started carrying Narcan in 2015. In 2016 and 2017 combined, Schilling’s officers used Narcan three times. They refer to them as “saves.”   


The EMTs with the Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District taught the police how to use Narcan. As first-responders, they always carry it. In the past five years, they have a lot of “saves” under their belts.  


Ron Leach, the fire chief, estimated that probably once a month his EMTs take someone to Valley View Hospital because of an opioid overdose.


These people need treatment, Leach said. “These victims are addicts and they’re sick. They’re not criminals.”


In the future, more and more people will probably need treatment. Sheriff Vallario thinks it’s likely more opioids are coming our way.


“I would suspect we’re going to see more of it before we see less of it,” he said.


His rule of thumb is to watch what’s happening on the East and West coasts. It all eventually makes its way here. Ultimately, Vallario thinks the opioid problem is just that: A problem, and hopefully one law enforcement can help solve.


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