DENVER (AP) – Drug overdose deaths are reaching record levels in a surprising corner of Colorado: the windswept southern counties where ranchers graze cattle and farmers raise corn.
In eight counties stretching from Baca west to Rio Grande, yearly overdose deaths have reached the highest level measured by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Denver and Adams counties have hit the same level – 20 or more deaths per 100,000 residents – along with two other Colorado counties.
Altogether, every one of Colorado’s 64 counties, except Mineral, a sparsely populated county in the mountains, has experienced a rising drug death rate in the last 12 years.
Drug overdoses have been on the rise nationally for several years, driven by deaths from heroin and powerful prescription painkillers.
Colorado ranked 12th in the nation for “nonmedical use” of opioid painkillers in 2012 and 2013, according to state statistics.
A recent report on substance abuse in Colorado suggested the overall rate of hospitalizations and deaths from prescription opioids in the state has leveled, while those related to heroin use continue to rise. Prescription drug death rates remain nearly nine times as high statewide as those for heroin, however, and heroin deaths have concentrated in the cities.
The heroin trade is finding its way to some of Colorado’s poorest and least populous counties.
“We are getting more referrals for heroin, along with prescription drug abuse” said Kristina Daniel, chief operating officer of the San Luis Valley Behavioral Health Group, a regional mental health center in Alamosa. “We have a need for services in our area for sure.”
Among Colorado counties, the most striking increase in drug deaths occurred in Baca, the agricultural county bordering Kansas and Oklahoma. Its death rate approximately quintupled in 12 years.
“We do know that heroin and prescription drugs are what’s driving the increase across the board. Cocaine has actually decreased as a cause,” said Tamara Keeney, a policy analyst at the Colorado Health Institute who used federal data to compare county-by-county death rates from 2002 to 2014.
“It was surprising to us to see that it wasn’t just the urban counties.”
Jackson County in northern Colorado and Delta County on the Western Slope also were in the highest category.
In Las Animas, Bent County Coroner Dave Roberts said the statistics reflect what he has seen in his 14-year tenure.
“When I first started, there were hardly any overdoses,” he said. “Now it’s really prevalent.”
Roberts said many are caused by prescription painkillers, “and an influx of methamphetamines and cocaine. It’s amazing the amount of meth that’s in small counties.”
Among the prescription painkiller deaths, “I’d say most of them were stolen and most of those were in the oxycodone family.”
Roberts hasn’t seen a fatal heroin overdose yet. But in Pueblo, the most urban county in southeastern Colorado, Coroner Brian Cotter said “an explosion of heroin use” has affected his county.
He’s also seeing cases of people who died from taking a combination of prescription drugs. “That has grown quite dramatically as well,” he said.
Sadly, Roberts said, the average age of death is the early thirties.
He particularly remembers one woman in her 30s who had no known history of drug abuse. There was nothing in her room to suggest a drug death, he said, “until I rolled her over and found a hydrocodone pill under her on the bed.”