Republican politicians in Colorado have fallen in love with a dubious talking point about fentanyl deaths in our state that has prompted at least two local news outlets to debunk the statistic. As Election Day draws closer, this talking point is getting shared with increasing frequency by Republican candidates.
And it’s wrong.
The talking point is some variation of this: “Colorado is #2 in the country in fentanyl deaths.” Gubernatorial candidate
Hiedi Heidi Ganahl says it all the time. Senate candidate Joe O’Dea and Attorney General candidate John Kellner are among the Republican candidates who have recently started repeating the number.
But as both The Colorado Sun and The Denver Post report, that number is just straight-up false. More importantly, experts say that attributing this scary-sounding statistic to Colorado is missing the point of the fentanyl problem in general.
Let’s start with The Colorado Sun’s Jesse Paul via its “Unaffiliated” newsletter following a recent gubernatorial debate:
Ganahl claimed during the debate that Colorado is “No. 2 in fentanyl deaths.” That’s wrong. [Pols emphasis]
Ganahl’s campaign, when asked for evidence to back up the claim, pointed to a line in an Axios Denver story about fentanyl deaths in Colorado to back up this claim.
The news outlet accurately reported “Colorado’s uptick (in fentanyl deaths) ranked second in the country from 2019 to 2021, according to a report published this month from the nonprofit Families Against Fentanyl.” Families Against Fentanyl, an organization that advocates for tougher policies against the drug and better awareness around it, found that the number of fentanyl deaths in Colorado increased by 382% between the fiscal year ending in May 2019 and the fiscal year ending in May 2021, from 147 to 709. That rate of increase ranked second among states over that time frame.
But Colorado’s per capita fentanyl death rate from June 2020 to May 2021 didn’t even rank in the top 20, according to Families Against Fentanyl. West Virginia was No. 1. Colorado was No. 33. [Pols emphasis]
Colorado was, however, in the top 10 — at No. 7 — when it comes to states with the highest rate of fentanyl death increases from 2015 to 2021, according to Families Against Fentanyl.
And here’s Seth Klamann of The Denver Post:
Where does Colorado rank in fentanyl deaths?
In short, not second. [Pols emphasis] The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not list deaths specifically for fentanyl, but it does for synthetic narcotics — of which fentanyl is the dominant substance. According to that data, Colorado’s provisional, accidental overdose rate involving synthetic narcotics in 2021 was 16.8 per 100,000 residents, which was 31st in the nation and paled in comparison to top-ranked West Virginia, which had an overdose rate of just over 66.
A separate report, compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation, ranked Colorado 30th for opioid overdoses through 2020; Kaiser’s calculation is a slightly larger category than the CDC’s and would include heroin and prescription pills as well as fentanyl.
The truth is that it is difficult to come up with an accurate number of fentanyl deaths IN ANY STATE because the drug is normally included in data sets among a broader category of “opiates” or “synthetic narcotics.”
“Parsing out inter-state differences is sort of a useless exercise.”
— Josh Blum of Denver Health
As Klamann notes in the Post, talking about fentanyl death rates in a given state is fairly pointless anyway:
That’s part of the reason why Josh Blum, the head of outpatient substance use treatment at Denver Health and a leading addiction specialist in the state, says that comparing states is a “useless exercise.” There’s no way to say how fentanyl’s presence in one place compares to others: Is there more fentanyl in Kansas versus Colorado? Is the drug supply in Illinois as contaminated with fentanyl as it is here, where heroin, meth and cocaine are often laced with the drug? A RAND Corporation study published earlier this year found that the potency of the drug supply varies even among neighboring states.
Blum noted that Colorado has several major cross-country interstates, plus a major metropolitan area, which makes it more conducive for drug traffickers. He ticked off other factors that make cross-state comparisons difficult: Colorado has a younger population, he said, which would mean residents are more likely to initiate drug use.
Colorado’s numbers are probably skewed because we do a pretty good job of tracking data on fentanyl deaths. By contrast, our neighbor to the north (Wyoming) has been particularly bad about collecting accurate information.
Colorado ranks 30th in the country when it comes to opioid overdose death rates per 100,000 people. That includes fentanyl deaths, but again, it also counts other opioid deaths.
In general, we wouldn’t listen to anything that Ganahl repeats out loud. Ganahl has a troubling history of not bothering to fact-check her own, uh, facts. She has claimed that “60% of Colorado kids can’t read, write, or do math,” which is silly, and she’s absolutely positive that there is an epidemic of “furries” in Colorado schools no matter how many times this conspiracy theory is debunked.
Likewise, John Kellner has regularly cherry-picked crime statistics he uses to attack incumbent Democrat Phil Weiser; the data actually shows that crime rates in Kellner’s judicial district are significantly higher than statewide averages. As for O’Dea…well, he changes his story on issues like the rest of us change our underwear.
Nobody would argue that tackling the fentanyl crisis is not an important issue, in Colorado or nationwide. But in order to have an honest discussion that leads to real results, we need to first start with accurate information.