DENVER — Colorado officials said Tuesday that they hope a two-fold approach will prevent the growth of the state’s heroin epidemic.
Federal and state officials announced plans to focus on prosecuting dealers and use local law enforcement to link people addicted to the drug to treatment options.
According to an updated report also released Tuesday, 228 people died in Colorado in 2016 from heroin overdoses. That’s an increase of 43 percent compared to 2015, when 160 heroin overdose deaths were reported.
Colorado U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer said his office is working with the Drug Enforcement Agency and local prosecutors to bring federal charges against traffickers of heroin, fentanyl and other dangerous drugs. Federal prosecutions can lead to longer sentences and those convicted serve time in far-flung federal prisons rather than state prisons, sending a warning to other dealers, Troyer said.
“This is not a mass incarceration argument,” Troyer said. “This is an exacting, targeting argument on those causing the most harm.”
The second half of the strategy will encourage local law enforcement to help people addicted to the drug get access to treatment through a state hotline.
Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock said local law enforcement quickly learn to recognize the difference between someone who is dealing and someone who is caught in the grip of addiction.
“We’re doing something that we haven’t done in a long time,” Spurlock said. “And that is go after the pushers but have an equally opposing force on the user and helping those folks get off.”
Under the new plan, officers can contact the hotline directly or encourage people with addiction to use it as a resource.
State health officials said the hotline operators walk callers through the process of finding treatment options.
The effort doesn’t have any new financial backing. Officials with the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Area program said they will direct $4 million in existing funds toward law enforcement task forces aggressively targeting heroin dealers.
“We don’t want to become an East coast, a West Virginia or Ohio,” said Tom Gorman, director of the program. “We want to take a proactive approach and say we want to stop this in Colorado.”