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Under a vintage Colorado sky, fans gather in a parking lot at Red Rocks a few hours before a show. The tunes are cranked up. The mood is festive in the mostly 20-something-aged crowd. Steve Sarin is in a baseball cap with a short beard. Joined by a partner, he carries some small packages.
“We are gonna walk around the parking lot and ask people if they’d like us to check their stash,” he said.
Sarin is with AspenRidge Recovery, a drug and alcohol treatment center. Fentanyl deaths have spiked in the state recently, 10 times what they were in 2016. That’s happening in part because many other street drugs get cut, or diluted, with fentanyl.
“There’s so much fentanyl right now. It is so ubiquitous. It is so cheap. It’s easy to purchase,” said emergency and addiction medicine physician Dr. Don Stader. He’s seen plenty of overdose patients end up in Swedish Medical Center, where he works.
That’s why Sarin is at Red Rocks.
“We have fentanyl test strips. We’re gonna see if people are willing to let us test their substances and see if there’s fentanyl in it,” he said.
This effort is not connected to the promoter or the city, which runs the facility. Sarin and other handing out the test strips are just volunteers. His colleague Kayti Hale has long dark hair and a tattoo on her arm. She says this show is electronic dance music and at those shows, there tends to be a lot of different types of drugs, “you know, ecstasy, molly, ketamine, amphetamines.”
Hale and Sarin approach a group of guys and explain what they’re doing. The group doesn’t want to be on the radio; one says his mom listens to CPR. They decline to have any drugs tested but do take some free drug reversal kits.
The next group, again mostly guys, takes the pair up on the drug-test offer. In this case to check out a pill, a psychoactive, mostly recreational drug called MDMA, also known as ecstasy or molly. “So he is taking a little bit of molly. We’re putting it into a bottle cap, just a regular water bottle cap. And we’re adding a few milliliters of water,” Sarin explained.
It works like a COVID-19 or pregnancy test, and soon a dark line appears on the strip.
A few minutes later, Sarin raised his voice. “We got a positive hit on that, on the fentanyl.”
The result causes a stir in the group. They expressed their gratitude to Sarin and Hale. One of them says he won’t be taking those drugs anymore. A couple others changed their minds on doing an interview. Another, named Chris, agreed to talk about the positive result.
“I was very, very surprised,” he said.
Chris told me he’s from back East. He seemed rattled. He knew someone a little older than him who accidentally overdosed on fentanyl.
“The people that are selling it are just trying to make money, and they don’t care what happens to other people. And that’s the truth,” he said.
Stories of recovery
Hale, 30, shared her own recovery story, which she said led her to seek help and ultimately help others. She said she started drinking as a teenager. That later led to other substances. She entered treatment several times before achieving sobriety.
“Why I’m so passionate about what we’re doing is I bought what I thought was cocaine, and it was something else,” said Hale, now a case manager with AspenRidge Recovery. “I still have no idea what it was, but I ended up having a heart attack from it.
“It was very scary. Yeah. It was definitely a wake-up call,” said Hale, shaking her head.
Sarin, the organization’s PR and Marketing Manager, too started as a teen with alcohol, at first when he was working in restaurants. He said by his late 20s, he was a “problem drinker.” That led to a cycle of struggles and challenges, including detox, an alcohol withdrawal seizure, a DUI and eventually to a night of drinking with a co-worker and his first time trying molly. Sarin said he was so drunk and stoned he took a spill and cracked the back of his head open, a bloody mess requiring 14 staples and countless stitches.
“A week later, I’m sitting on my mom’s patio, smoking a cigarette and I just had a moment of clarity and you know, I saw a fork in the road,” he said.
Now, Sarin said, he’s glad to alert people of what they unknowingly might be consuming.
“Fentanyl is in everything from cocaine, molly, X (ecstasy),” he said. “A lot of folks don’t know that.”
“Everyone thinks fentanyl is a problem for people who abuse opioids. And that’s just not the case anymore. Anyone that recreationally uses a substance needs to be worried about this,” Sarin said.
Last year, illegal fentanyl killed more than 700 people in Colorado.
Testing not always accurate
ER and addiction Dr. Stader has helped spearhead the push to make the overdose reversal drug naloxone, or Narcan, more available. He thinks broader use of fentanyl test strips could help change behavior, discouraging some, especially those consuming recreationally.
“That’s very true for inexperienced users or users who might have bought a pill that they think is a Xanax, but is actually a fentanyl tablet,” Stader said.
But others cautioned there’s a lot of nuance to the test strips. Rachel Clark, education manager for a group called DanceSafe, which does testing at concerts, says those who use them need to be aware of the strips’ limitations.
“Fentanyl test strips are finicky devices,” she said. “If you don’t dilute them correctly, they do throw false positives, especially with MDMA and meth.”
Clark said the group just spent a year and a half revamping instructions for the kits and fentanyl strips it uses.
“My advice is do the most that you can to do this right. Don’t expect drug checking to be super simple because it’s not,” she said.
For more from Colorado Public Radio, go to www.cpr.org.