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Denver police launch fentanyl investigations unit

The Denver Police Department will assign five detectives and a sergeant to a newly-created unit dedicated to investigating fentanyl-dealing rings and deaths.

At least 219 people died of fentanyl overdoses in Denver in 2022, according to the most recent data available from the Denver Office of the Medical Examiner. Although the 2022 data is not final, fentanyl overdoses represent half of the 424 overdose deaths in the city last year.

The number of fentanyl deaths in 2022 is a slight decrease from the 239 deaths in 2021, but a significant increase from the 17 deaths recorded in 2018.

Illicit fentanyl is a potent synthetic opioid increasingly being cut into street drugs like heroin and cocaine, sometimes unbeknownst to the people using the drugs. It’s cheaper to make than cocaine and heroin and extremely potent — the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency estimates fentanyl is 50 times as powerful as heroin and as little as 3 milligrams can be a lethal dose.

Experts have dubbed illicit fentanyl’s infiltration into the U.S. drug market the third wave of the country’s decades-old opioid crisis.

The new Denver police team will focus on disrupting distribution networks and overdose death investigations, according to a news release from the department.

Department leaders freed up staff for the new unit by dismantling the Marijuana Unit, which investigated problems like illegal grow operations. The number of cases handled by the marijuana team decreased over the years, however, and marijuana cases will now be handled by the narcotics teams based in each police district.

“As a law enforcement agency, we must adapt as trends change,” Denver police Chief Ron Thomas said in the news release. “By refocusing this team of investigators, we are increasing our capacity to address the fentanyl epidemic, hold dealers accountable and remove more fentanyl from our streets with the ultimate goal of saving lives.”

Denver police recovered 131 pounds of fentanyl last year — a significant increase from the 5 pounds recovered in 2019, according to data provided by the department. Denver police investigated 1,724 cases involving suspected fentanyl in 2022 — six times the 286 fentanyl-related cases in 2020.

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