Doctor Rob Valuck runs a drug abuse prevention center at the University of Colorado, “The Center for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention.” Most of the center’s work focuses on prescribed drugs, but not exclusively.
“Virtually my entire career has been spent on, more or less, the opioid crisis and trying to formulate responses to it at different levels,” Valuck told The Sopris Sun.
In the last 15 years he’s focused on policy at the state level and helped spearhead a statewide opioid task force, “The Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention.”
There are 10 different work groups, including: public awareness, data, recovery, treatment, harm reduction, safe disposal, affected families and the list goes on.
Anyone who wants to be involved can join the consortium, and all of the meetings are public and held over Zoom. “We probably have 800 or 900 people that participate from across the state,” said Valuck. For more information, visit www.corxconsortium.org
Fentynal was invented in 1960 and marketed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1968 for surgical pain management in the operating room, Valuck explained.
“It’s front-of-mind now and has been for some time,” he said, when it comes to the opioid epidemic.
A decade ago, diverting fentanyl from a medical setting was how it made its way onto the street. Today, according to Valuck, drug cartels have figured out how to get the chemical precursors for the drug, and “do the last step of the chemical synthesis in clandestine labs.”
He added that making fentanyl is much cheaper than cultivating poppies for heroin; from having the land to grow poppies to the cumbersomeness of trucking the final product.
“Fentanyl is cheaper, easier and more potent,” he stated. “It’s purely economic.”
When it comes to distributing, quantities can be shipped in a FedEx envelope, and it is often undetectable.
While a major issue is that the drug often taints other recreational drugs, and unknowing users experience an accidental overdose, there is a growing market for fentanyl.
“It’s still the exception, not the rule,” said Valuck, “but it’s not non-existent either. People are seeking it.”
He added that, like methamphetamine, fentanyl is highly addictive. “It produces a lot of euphoria and up-regulation, when your receptors start to change in your body and it starts to become physiologically dependent, if you take it repeatedly.”
It doesn’t take long before a regular user’s tolerance goes up and they’re no longer getting the same high, and take the drug to prevent getting withdrawals. People might try to up their dose to achieve the same high, but that can have dire consequences.
“People call that ‘chasing the dragon.’ You’re constantly chasing the dragon for the next high that you really can’t get, and if you get close enough to the dragon they breathe fire and they will kill you.”
‘Keep the Party Safe’
Dr. Valuck told The Sopris Sun about one of the consortium’s public outreach initiatives. The “Keep the Party Safe” campaign spreads two messages: awareness that fentanyl can kill and strategies to reduce the risk.
“Fentanyl is here. It’s around you,” Valuck emphasized. “We try to make everyone aware that it’s right here in Colorado.”
There were over 2,000 overdose deaths last year in Colorado and more than half of them involved fentanyl, he added.
The campaign encourages having a designated non-user at the party and having Naloxone, an overdose retroactive, handy. Valuck emphasized that Naloxone is incredibly safe, and if someone isn’t in fact experiencing an overdose Naloxone still does no harm.
“You can give Naloxone to an infant and it won’t harm them. The FDA has broad approval for any age group. It’s perfectly safe. It’s a wonderful drug that will save your life,” he said.
Most pharmacies have standing orders for Naloxone, explained Valuck, due to what is essentially a statewide prescription. Someone can ask their local pharmacist for Naloxone and say they would like to use the standing order. Most insurers cover it, including Medicaid.
People can download the OpiRescue App which connects them to resources in their area and provides information such as how to recognize an overdose.
“If you get Naloxone and download OpiRescue, now you’re equipped,” Valuck concluded.
Keep the Party Safe is currently working with music festival and concert organizers, primarily in the Denver area at this point, to help spread their messaging. The group hopes to make an official announcement on May 9, National Fentanyl Awareness Day.
Visit www.keepthepartysafe.org to learn more about Keep the Party Safe.