Denver Opioid Crisis Gives Tragic Meaning to “The Mile High City”

City of Denver skyline.

The Mile High City: while Denver's name is a play on its elevation, in recent years the opioid crisis has brought a more tragic connotation to the name. Getting high has unfortunately become more common here in recent years. How does Denver compare to other cities around the country, and why is the opioid crisis so acute in the Denver area? 

The Opioid Crisis In Denver 

According to the Denver Needs Assessment on Opioid Use, "10,552 Coloradans died from drug overdoses between 2010 and 2015, with opioid-related overdoses tripling during this period." By 2015, the city of Denver had opioid use, addiction, and overdose rates that were higher than in other areas of the state, with 8 opioid-related deaths and 4.2 heroin-related deaths per 100,000 residents. This is compared to a state average of 5.8 opioid-related deaths and 2.9 heroin-related deaths per 100,000.

In the Denver Needs Assessment, two-thirds of those opioid users interviewed stated that they had overdosed in the past. Unfortunately, since opioid use continues to rise, the number of deaths continues to rise, even with better access to treatment. In 2016, there were 173 overdose casualties, with 103 opioid overdoses leading to death; however, 2017 saw 201 casualties, and 110 were linked to opioid use.

How Does Denver Compare? 

How does Denver compare to the rest of the country? While Denver's overdose rates are much lower than those in many states such as West Virginia, which had a death toll of 52 per 100,000 in 2016, they are nonetheless a serious problem. 

In Denver, the majority of people using opioids are 25 to 34-year-old men, followed by men ages 35 to 44. The most commonly-used drugs in the city are heroin, meth, mixtures of heroin and meth, heroin and cocaine, cocaine, and steroids.

Specific challenges in Denver include: 

  • The purity of the drug. Most of the heroin coming into Denver is black tar heroin from Mexico. This is generally injected, and since the purity is quite variable, it is easier to overdose. WestWord states that "even experienced heroin users can overdose when the drug they're injecting is more pure than usual — and figuring out the variances is difficult." 
  • Combining drugs. Over time, addicts are not able to get high from heroin; they are just taking it to avoid withdrawal. This leads to users trying different drug combinations that can be harder to manage.
  • Those coming out of prison are also more likely to overdose since they move from recovery to use again and their reactions can be intense. 

Overdose treatment is key in Denver, just as it is in many areas of the country. Denver has seen excellent results. The Denver Needs Assessment discusses the importance of front-line training and access to naloxone to address overdoses. According to WestWord, "in 2016, the Harm Reduction Action Center reported that 187 client overdoses were reversed. That number rose substantially the following year. During the first ten months of 2017, overdose reversals were conducted for 234 HRAC clients." 

What Are Some Barriers to Treatment? 

Safe housing is important for those who are in recovery. In fact, the Denver Needs Assessment revealed that the vast majority of the participants were homeless. Many of them did not want to use shelters because they were unable to bring other family members, the shelters are overcrowded, and they feel unsafe and too restricted in shelters. For many people interviewed in the needs assessment, securing stable housing was what allowed them to access treatment. 

It can also be difficult for those who are living on the street to get an ID, and this ID is an important step in getting treatment for addiction. Some people have no information that would help identify them and allow them to get an official ID, while others have no background in the state.

Getting to services can be a challenge for those who are struggling with addiction and finances. It can be hard to find transportation to diverse services that are located in different areas of the city. Even though there is food, clothing, and shelter available, getting to each one can take a lot of time and costs money.

Person holding a small plastic bag of white powder.

How do addicts move away from using? Denver drug users have spoken.

What Does Good Treatment Look Like? 

According to the Denver Needs Assessment, users themselves state that good treatment has a number of different components that have not always been included in drug treatment plans. These include: 

  • Humane withdrawal. Making it easier for people to move through the withdrawal period makes it more likely that people will decide to withdraw from drugs. The idea of moving through withdrawal without support is frightening. 
  • Long-term residential and inpatient services, to provide safe and stable housing and the supervised treatment that people need to find success.
  • Treatment plans that address the causes of an individual's addiction rather than the symptoms. For instance, if someone has turned to heroin due to a lifelong battle with chronic depression, they need to address the depression as well as the heroin use. 
  • Peer support groups and support staff that understand the individual's journey.  

Denver Addiction Treatment Resources 

When you or any of your loved ones are struggling with addiction in Denver, what resources do you have to move into recovery? Denver addiction treatment resources can be found at recovery centers like The Recovery Village. There, you will find resources such as: 

  • Medically-assisted withdrawal to help you move off drugs safely 
  • Inpatient programs that include residential programs, counseling, and other therapies such as art therapy 
  • Outpatient programs that allow you to transition back home, provide sober housing, and may allow you to balance work with your program 
  • Aftercare to help you follow up with your treatment through therapies such as counseling 

A treatment facility should also provide treatment for co-occurring disorders such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD. This will help you or your loved one to be more successful in recovery.

Are you looking for addiction treatment, or do you have a friend or family member who would benefit from an inpatient or outpatient program? The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake is here to help. We offer Colorado addiction treatment services. Contact us today to learn more about accessing care and transforming your life.

Denver Opioid Crisis Gives Tragic Meaning to “The Mile High City”
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