Open Accessibility Menu

Daily Camera: Community Response to an Increase in Fentanyl Overdoses

Daily Camera: Community Response to an Increase in Fentanyl Overdoses

The Oct. 16 edition of the Daily Camera featured a story about local drug overdoses and the challenges faced by law enforcement, as well as the increase in demand for local harm prevention and drug recovery programs, including BCH’s PILLAR Program. The article appears on the front page of the print edition and includes an interview with BCH PILLAR Program Coordinator, Amanda Wroblewski. Additional information about Narcan is listed in this BCH blog. 

Continue reading the full article below:

‘There’s a calling for a safe place’: Boulder programs and law enforcement tackle increasing fentanyl overdoses


PUBLISHED: October 15, 2023 at 4:06 p.m. | UPDATED: October 15, 2023 at 4:11 p.m.

Ian Boyd stands in the shade of the public bathrooms on Pearl Street in downtown Boulder on a calm, sunny September afternoon. Around him, a number of unhoused Boulderites lie sleeping in the sun in front of the Boulder County Historic Courthouse.

The area is popular among unhoused communities as well as the Central Park area, where people are commonly seen sleeping and talking on the grass. But the area has also drawn attention from local law enforcement for drug use and overdoses.

According to a number of Boulder police tweets, the department made at least 11 arrests in connection to drug possession from Aug. 31 through Sept. 7, including six arrests on Sept. 6 in the Central Park and Pearl Street Mall areas.

The sweep was an effort by police to crack down on the immediate distribution and use of fentanyl after police responded to two overdoses within the same hour, according to Boulder Deputy Police Chief Stephen Redfearn.

Despite the surge, Redfearn said arrests aren’t the long-term solution.

“Our officers are Narcan-ing someone almost everyday,” Redfearn said, referring to the brand name for Naloxone, a spray used to revive people who overdose on opioids. “That’s been a part of it too, just noticing that wow, we’ve seen a lot more overdoses and we’ve got to do something. Arresting somebody is probably not going to solve their drug addiction, but at least it hopefully discourages people from blatantly using drugs in public spaces that people and their families want to enjoy.”

Boyd has been in Boulder for the past 10 years and has seen the impact of fentanyl and other drug usage into early adulthood. Born in Santa Cruz, Calif., before moving to Colorado with his adopted family, the 22-year-old said the city is more socially accepting than most, but still has work to do in how it addresses drug usage.

“There’s not a lot of resources that are super well known,” Boyd said. “It takes someone else already knowing and telling you. Some people on the streets don’t really have the resources to go on a phone or ask the right people, because that takes knowing the right people.”

Boyd always carries Narcan in case someone nearby needs it while overdosing on fentanyl — which has tainted the drug market in recent years. He said in the past, he’s had to hand out the nasal spray in order to save someone’s life.

Harm reduction and drug recovery programs

Amanda Wroblewski, a coordinator of a prevention and intervention drug program called PILLAR at the Boulder Community Foothills Hospital, said Boulder has had an exponential uptick in drug use in recent years.

PILLAR, which stands for Prevention and Intervention for Life-Long Alternatives and Recovery, provides free assistance to Boulder County residents with chronic pain and opioid or other substance use disorders, according to its website. Along with acting as a referral program and providing education on opioid use, the program also uses more holistic treatment alternatives for those with Opioid Use Disorder.

In September, the program had seen more than 500 participants since the start of the year. In 2022, the total number throughout the year was around 450, according to Wroblewski.

“The drugs are getting more intense,” Wroblewski said. “Fentanyl is a big concern because it’s everywhere, mostly pressed pills or powders. If somebody is under the impression that they are buying cocaine, they’re not prepared for fentanyl use and that’s what’s leading to overdose deaths at much, much higher rates than we’ve seen in the past.”

The rise in overdoses has resulted in more demand for services like PILLAR and the Works Program, which is a harm reduction program under Boulder County Public Health.

Georgia Babatsikos, a harm reduction program manager for the Works Program, said the demand for the program has “become huge” causing the program to need to hire more harm reduction specialists and educators.

Along with providing free harm reduction medical supplies, educational resources and HIV and Hepatitis B testing, the Works Program has an outreach team that will walk Pearl Street, Central Park and other areas commonly populated with unhoused people and hand out supplies to reduce unsafe drug use, according to Babatsikos. The program also operates a clinic in Longmont at 515 Coffman St. in St. Vrain Community Hub that anyone can visit for free, confidential care.

Boyd said despite it being harder for unhoused people to be connected to resources when they want them, he does notice and appreciate the presence of outreach teams and people who provide support to the community.

Law enforcement response

Babatsikos said the Works Program has a “great relationship” with police, which includes Narcan training for officers and sharing data of overdoses in the area via a confidential overdose map. Babatsikos said with the Boulder Police Department’s support, the Works Program has been in operation since 1989 — making it the third oldest harm reduction program in the U.S.

Boyd said that while Boulder’s approach on drug arrests and charges is better than most places, he criticized the police for the sudden surges of drug arrests, including what occurred in early September.

“A couple months ago, everywhere was incredibly policed on the flip of a dime,” Boyd said on Tuesday. “Whereas normally, which is weird to say, I see people twisting a bubble or smoking foil in broad daylight. It’s peculiar to say the least. Do I think it’s OK? No. But I also don’t think it’s cool to allow it to happen and make it seem like it’s OK and then the next day flip the stance completely and brush through and arrest everybody that they see doing what they’ve been letting them do for months.”

In September, Redfearn said the department will review the outcome of drug arrests a month or two following the sweep. If there’s no effective change they said they will reassess their approach.

Redfearn said low-level arrests can lead defendants to provide information about larger suppliers, as repeat offenders are often a part of a “very organized” hierarchy.

“We know we’re not going to solve it in one day and that’s why we’re going to have a continued presence but a big part of it for us is, we understand that we’re not going to be able to arrest our way out of these problems,” Redfearn said. “Writing tickets repeatedly with no results is not going to help the problem. So we’re continuing to engage with our partners.”

Boyd said he wished there was a greater police presence working for the protection of unhoused people when it comes to the violence that comes along with drug use.

“There’s a calling for a safe place,” Boyd said. “If there was a space where people could indulge and still be able to have the resources of the police force … there’s a lot of people out here who get hurt.”

On Aug. 6, Boyd was arrested on five felony charges including unlawful possession of methamphetamine and unlawful possession of heroin or fentanyl, before he was booked into the Boulder County Jail and released on Sept. 9 on a $5,000 bond.

“Being in jail, it’s just not a good place,” Boyd said. “It doesn’t inspire you to make a change in some sort of positive way for yourself or for any other reason. They’ll go to jail then they’ll be released and then they’re still going to do the same thing.”

Boulder County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Carrie Haverfield said inmates are asked drug and alcohol related questions twice upon their arrival to the jail. They’re then contacted by two departments who offer assistance in connecting inmates with drug or alcohol addiction recovery programs.

“There are multiple fail safes built into this process and people don’t slip through the cracks because they missed one opportunity,” Haverfield wrote in an email. “The most important part of this is that the inmate has to want to participate. No one is forced into programming and some are asked to leave the programs due to lack of participation.”

Haverfield added that the jail is currently low staffed, which has created a backlog for inmates waiting for programming. She also said the program is offered in two areas, one for male inmates and one for female inmates, and not everyone can live in these two housing areas due to charges, behavior or mental health issues.

Programming at the jail is run by Community Justice Service employees, sheriff’s office employees and other outside partners that receive partial funding from the Works Program.

Long-term solutions

Redfearn, Babatsikos and Wroblewski all said the social perception that drug use and overdose primarily or only impacts unhoused people is false. According to Babatsikos, 50% of drug overdoses in Boulder occur in a home.

“Drug use does not discriminate,” Wroblewski said. “When you’re unhoused and out and exposed to the elements and out for everyone to see all day it’s a lot harder to hide your drug use. If you have your basic needs met and you have a house where you can have some privacy and get high all you want, well, I guess that’s considered less of a problem [by the public.]”

Babatsikos called on Boulder residents and officials to address social determinants of health when seeking to combat drug use. She said this includes prioritizing access to housing, employment and medical care with recognition of the intersectionality of these issues.

“We need to address and prevent the underlying traumas that lead to drug use,” Babatsikos said. “Trauma can include physical, sexual, psychological and structural racism.”

Babatsikos said harm reduction starts with people being prepared, non-judgmentally supporting others with drug addiction and taking the time to understand what they’re going through and have been through.

Those seeking an appointment at PILLAR can contact Taylor Bister at The Works Program can be reached at 720-864-6515. Redfearn asks that anyone witnessing an overdose or unconscious person call 911. Redfearn said anyone who witnesses a suspicious situation, which can include the trading or selling of drugs or the illegal or unsafe ingestion of drugs, call dispatch at 303-441-3333.