Fentanyl in Colorado: Four people scarred by fentanyl overdoses, death

Cath Adams lost her 21-year-old daughter, her eldest child.

Adam Lovato lost his health, his housing and custody of his two daughters.

Bo Gribbon, 20, lost six of his friends.

Stephanie Birely lost nights of sleep as she watched her dad quickly spiral into addiction and fought to help him get out.

The four represent just a sliver of the thousands of Coloradans whose lives have been torn apart by fentanyl, the potent synthetic opioid that has pervaded the state and nation’s drug supply and caused drug fatalities to spike. Fentanyl deaths in Colorado increased more than tenfold in the past five years — from 81 in 2017 to more than 900 in 2021 — and there is no indication they’re slowing. Fentanyl killed more Coloradans last year than homicides or traffic crashes.

Horrific, highly-publicized fentanyl deaths coupled with the skyrocketing death toll have propelled the drug and its complex impacts into the forefront of conversation in Colorado. Five friends died in a Commerce City apartment taking what they thought was cocaine, a situation that one prosecutor called “a nightmare scenario.” A teenager fatally overdosed at her desk in a Colorado Springs high school after taking a pill she thought was Percocet.

Colorado lawmakers currently are working on a bill to address the drug, but their proposed legislation has been criticized by all sides.

Illicit fentanyl is created in laboratories, most commonly in Mexico and China, and smuggled or shipped into the U.S. as pills, powder or mixed into other drugs. It’s cheaper to make than cocaine and heroin, and easier to get than diverted prescription painkillers, like oxycodone. It’s also extremely potent — the Drug Enforcement Agency estimates fentanyl is 50 times as powerful as heroin and as little as 3 milligrams can be a lethal dose.

Drug distributors are lacing, or completely substituting, street drugs with fentanyl, often unbeknownst to those who eventually use them. For people with opiate addiction, fentanyl has replaced nearly all illicit drugs available to them, forcing them to use fentanyl to meet the needs of their addiction.

Experts dubbed illicit fentanyl’s infiltration into the U.S. drug market the third wave of the country’s decades-old opioid crisis. First, drug companies in the 1990s flooded the country with prescription painkillers and patients soon became addicted. Then, heroin became a cheaper alternative as prescription painkillers were restricted and became more expensive on the street. Now, the even cheaper and deadlier fentanyl is replacing heroin and many other drugs.

Beyond the devasting statistics, the deaths have left thousands of families and friends in shock and grieving. People with addiction who used fentanyl are picking up the pieces of their lives as they wade through treatment. Kids are growing up without their parents and parents are burying their kids. Young people are watching their friend circles shrink. There are empty seats at the dinner table, missing voices in church.

Of the thousands affected, here’s how fentanyl has shaped these four Coloradans’ lives.

Seeking recovery

Adam Lovato was just trying to get to the bathroom at a party in Federal Heights when his friend suddenly slumped face-first to the floor in the hallway.

Lovato checked if he was breathing — nothing. His friend had shot up heroin a few moments before but didn’t know the heroin was laced with fentanyl.

The party ground to a halt. Lovato ran to his car outside and grabbed the overdose-reversal medication he had stored there just in case. When he came back to the apartment, the other partygoers were slapping the unconscious man, screaming for him to wake up.

Lovato sprayed the medication, Narcan, up his friend’s nose. Eventually, his friend woke up. The party went on after a pause as if nothing had happened.

But something had shifted for Lovato at that party last summer. As he smoked a cigarette outside, alone and more subdued, he realized that if anybody else at the party overdosed there would not be any Narcan to save them. He was the only person who had it at the party — and he’d just used his only dose. He realized that if he overdosed that night, he’d likely die.

The next morning, Lovato sought treatment for the opioid addiction that had ravaged the last 12 years of his life.

“That scared the crap out of me, seeing someone that I know overdose,” Lovato, 33, said. “After that point, I decided no more.”

Lovato grew up in the Denver suburbs, graduated from Dakota Ridge High School in Littleton and enrolled at Dodge City Community College on a baseball scholarship. He was studying engineering and being scouted as a left-hand pitcher when, at age 19, he was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease that causes his immune system to attack tissues and organs. Lupus forced him to stop playing baseball and he came home to Denver for treatment.

His doctors prescribed Lovato painkillers — 60 morphine pills and 150 Percocets a month — for the pain. They started to taper down his prescriptions after he failed a urinalysis test because he took a Vyvanse pill, an ADHD medicine, given to him by a friend. Three months later, he no longer had access to the prescription painkillers he had become addicted to and that treated his pain. Facing the pain from his disease — coupled with the pain from opioid withdrawal — he sought prescription painkillers sold on the street.

But the pills were expensive, so he started buying heroin. The heroin led to meth and any other substance that helped dull or mask the pain from lupus and the withdrawals. When fentanyl infiltrated Denver’s drug supply, he started using fentanyl pills.

“On the streets, you can’t find Percocet,” Lovato said. “You can’t find Vicodin. You can’t find heroin. It’s just fentanyl.”

Addiction made him homeless. His disease made it hard to hold down a full-time job. He worked as a valet for the Pepsi Center and casinos, but the cold in winter wreaked havoc on his body and he would get sick. After several absences, he’d get fired. He tried multiple times to return to college, but each time lupus forced him to stop.

He got sober several times, but relapsed. The withdrawals were painful — he vomited, he defecated in his pants, he felt there were bugs crawling under his skin, and he couldn’t get out of bed for days. He crashed cars his parents helped him buy. He was robbed and beaten. He lost custody of his two young daughters. When social services showed up to take them away, he had to pick up his sobbing baby girls and put them in the back of the government car.

But something shifted after his friend’s overdose at the party, he said. That could’ve been him dying in the hallway.

Every Friday he goes to the Denver Health methadone clinic and picks up his doses for the week. The methadone mitigates withdrawal symptoms but doesn’t help with his lupus pain.

He stays sober for his little girls, who are now 4 and 5 years old. While he’s sober, he gets to visit them at their adoptive parents’ home. Giving them up was the hardest decision he ever made, he said, but it was the right choice for the girls. He wants to stay alive so that, when they’re old enough, he can tell them why he couldn’t raise them even though he loved them so, so much.

“I want them to see that I’m better than I was when I had to give them up,” he said.

He still carries Narcan in his bag, along with baggies of supplies to give to people experiencing homelessness. He’s living with his grandfather — the two help take care of each other. He hopes to find a job that he can manage while also managing his lupus. Maybe he’ll get involved in coaching baseball. Maybe he’ll become a counselor for other people with addiction. He wants others to know that it’s possible to find sobriety and hopes that maybe telling his story could help save someone’s life. Right now, Lovato is taking it one hour at a time.

“This is the clearest my mind has been since being on Percocet, 13 years ago,” he said. “There’s still a lot I want to do with my life.”

A life cut short by a fake pill

Emily Adams was 21 years old and 18 months sober when she died after taking a pill she thought was Percocet.

She had moved to Arizona from her home in Colorado to seek treatment and, after she went into recovery, she worked in peer support for others with substance use disorder. Emily sought the pill for tooth pain, her mom Cath Adams said. But the pill was fentanyl, and Emily died in her Tuscon apartment on April 28, 2020 — her little sister Ashley’s 16th birthday.

“When Emily called that day, I thought she was calling to wish Ashley happy birthday,” Adams said. “But it was her roommate calling to say something was wrong.”

Emily was an old soul who always tuned into others’ feelings and needs, Adams said. She grew vegetables to give to people without homes. She participated in church projects.

“It was just profound in the ways that she would give of herself,” Adams said.

Emily grew up in El Jebel in Eagle County and was introduced to meth in high school. She lost weight and focus as she spiraled into substance use disorder. In 2017, Emily enrolled in a teen program in Casa Grande, Arizona, after an intervention by her family during her senior year of high school. She stayed in Arizona for three years, relapsing twice before achieving long-term sobriety in July 2019. She wanted to go to school to study addiction therapy and was two days out from starting a new job when she died.

“She wanted to make her way back up to Colorado to join me in spreading awareness of substance use,” Adams said. “She never made it back.”

In the wake of her death, Adams and her younger daughter, Ashley, worked to bring drug prevention and awareness programs to schools in rural western Colorado and provide support for other families dealing with substance use disorder. Adams felt like she had nowhere to turn for help in their rural community while helping Emily fight her addiction.

“I felt there was no place for a high school student to go about substance use,” Adams said. “It was like we were spinning.”

Cath and Ashley hope to speak to students in every school in their area to warn them about the potential lethality of the drugs they’re seeing peddled on Snapchat and online. They give young people opioid overdose reversal medication and teach them to use it.

They also educate people about Colorado’s Good Samaritan law, which protects people from drug possession or use charges if they call 911 to report an overdose. They encourage teens to call for help immediately and stay put if someone is overdosing.

“I feel like I’ve found the meaning of life,” Adams said. “And now all I want them to do is for them to know life has meaning.

“I will do this for the rest of my life.”

“It just took him”

When Stephanie Birely‘s 62-year-old father decided he was ready to stop using fentanyl, she and her aunts spent every free moment the next week calling Colorado treatment facilities hoping for a bed.

They made at least 20 calls, spending hours on hold. They filled out form after form. Sometimes someone would return their message. Sometimes it took four or five calls to speak to someone who could answer their questions: Did the facility accept Medicaid? Did it have space for a new client? How long is the waitlist?

Birely worked in the calls between her full-time job and sharing parenting duties of her four kids with her husband.

“It’s almost like another part-time job – managing your loved one with addiction,” Birely said.

Birely’s dad, Mike, started using fentanyl in July after there was a delay in getting his prescription for painkillers refilled, he said. Mike, who spoke on the condition he be identified only by his first name for fear of losing his job, suffered from joint pain from osteoarthritis and pain from several old injuries and surgeries. He didn’t know much about the blue pills when he started taking them, he said, and didn’t expect to become addicted.

Mike had struggled with alcoholism but had remained sober for most of four decades. Besides alcohol, he’d never tried other substances before fentanyl. The fentanyl didn’t give him a euphoric high, but dulled his pain, he said. Eventually, he had to keep using it so he didn’t get sick from withdrawals.

“It started with just a few and then, pretty quickly, you’re on a roll,” he said.

His life unraveled quickly. He had been living with Birely in her home south of Denver, but she asked him to leave when she learned he was using. He moved into his truck for six months, sleeping in Walmart parking lots. He kept his job working at a local grocery store, though he was demoted, but soon was using all of his money to buy more pills. He’d smoke five to 10 pills a day, which cost him between $5 and $15 apiece. He was robbed by other people using drugs and had guns pointed at him when dealers thought he was an undercover cop. He ended up in the emergency room several times, including once when he went into a coma. He tried to die by suicide.

“If it wasn’t for my daughter and my sisters, I’d probably be dead,” Mike said.

He decided to get sober after he watched his life spiral out of control and found himself in riskier and riskier situations to satiate his addiction. His life devolved into a daily, stressful chase of the pills. Every time he smoked fentanyl alone, he knew he was gambling with his life.

“It’s crazy what it makes you do to get it,” he said. “You throw all caution to the wind.”

Meanwhile, Birely worried about her father.

“You’re sitting there wondering if he’s OK,” she said. “Is he dead somewhere in his car because he overdosed? I used to wake up every morning wondering if today was the day that I get a call that something happened.”

Sometimes, she became angry. How could he do this to his family? His grandkids missed him and she had to explain why he wasn’t around. But she knew his addiction was not a conscious choice — it was a disease. And she knew nothing she did would be effective until he decided to stop.

“It just took him,” she said.

When he said he was ready, she immediately launched into action to help. In October, Mike enrolled in a two-week residential program followed by two months of intensive outpatient treatment. But he relapsed within a few weeks while completing the outpatient program. In February, he tried again and enrolled in a two-month residential program.

They were lucky that the program had an opening for Mike within a few days, Birely said. The lack of treatment availability makes it difficult for people seeking help, especially for people on Medicaid and especially for people who do not have someone advocating for them, Birely and Mike said.

“If you try to get help and you get turned away, what do you do? You just keep using,” Mike said.

He graduated from the program April 1 and, since then, has worked on getting his life back together. He moved into an apartment with another graduate of the treatment program and continues to work at the grocery store, commuting nearly an hour to his job.

Now that he’s sober, Birely and her father can start repairing their relationship. It’s a process akin to grieving, Birely said. She misses the relationship she once had with her dad, but it has been irrevocably changed. Now that Mike is sober, they can start rebuilding trust again.

“I’m hopeful,” she said. “I’m not naive that he’s out of the woods, but I can sit here today and say I feel hopeful for him. He’s got a long road ahead of him, but I have hope.”

Bo Gribbon stands outside of the Mutiny Information Cafe on April 15, 2022. Gribbon recently testified to the Colorado House Judiciary Committee about six people in his friend group who fatally overdosed on fentanyl.

Six friends dead

By the sixth fentanyl death, 20-year-old Bo Gribbon felt numb.

First, his childhood friend Jack died in October 2020 after taking a pill he thought was Xanax, but it was laced with fentanyl. Bo had heard of fentanyl before but didn’t know much about it until he learned of his friend’s death.

Gribbon and Jack grew up together in Boulder — fly fishing and playing with Airsoft guns on the golf course behind Jack’s house.

At first, Gribbon was stunned into denial. He’d never had someone close to him in his life die young. Jack was 19.

“I didn’t know how to deal with it,” he said.

But in the following six months the fentanyl deaths in his circles of friends kept coming. In December 2020 — two months after Jack’s death — another childhood friend died. She was 21. Through the spring and summer of 2021, the deaths kept coming. Every few months, a new text message bearing bad news. A new obituary for a person he once knew.

As far as he knows, none of his six friends knew they were taking fentanyl. They were all teens or in their early 20s.

“Emotionally, it’s just brutal,” Gribbon said. “Most times when a young person dies, it’s shocking. It wasn’t shocking anymore.”

The isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic drove substance use as young people moved out of their parents’ homes and into lonely apartments, Gribbon said.

The deaths made Gribbon, a stagehand and musician, and his friends stop using drugs — it became too risky.

“We’re scared,” he said.

Earlier this month, Gribbon spoke in front of the Colorado House Judiciary Committee as they debated a bill meant to address the crush of fentanyl deaths. He’d never talked to lawmakers before — much less in a room packed with at least a hundred spectators — but felt like they needed to hear from someone his age. He wants police to investigate dealers and overdose deaths, he said, and wants Narcan to be more accessible. He’s seen Narcan revive someone at a music show.

Two years ago, he never would’ve thought someone should go to jail for possession of drugs, but with fentanyl now part of the market, his opinion has changed. People should be jailed if they are knowingly selling fentanyl, he said.

“These people I love have been killed,” he said. “Of course, they did make their own decision to take that pill, but you sold it for a profit and they died. (Expletive) you.”

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