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Fentanyl, meth are driving record overdoses, substance abuse in Laramie County; leaders discuss what they’re doing to address the issue

Law enforcement, government officials and the county coroner attended a public meeting Wednesday to bring the public up to speed on the state of drug addiction in southeast Wyoming.

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If you or someone you know is in immediate danger of harming themselves, please call 911. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text “WYO” to 741-741 for the Crisis Text Line.

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A transient man is arrested for possession of methamphetamine. A driver is sentenced to prison time for his sixth DUI. Laramie County deputies seize nearly 16,000 fentanyl pills following a 15-month investigation.

News of drug possession, drug distribution and substance abuse has grown increasingly common in Cheyenne and Laramie County. Families and friends are concerned about the welfare of loved ones, and many feel helpless about receiving help.

Substance abuse issues are complex, have far-reaching effects and are not easily solved, according to Amy Spieker, director of Cheyenne Regional Medical Center’s Community Health and Analysis wing. Spieker, who is also executive director of Laramie County Community Partnership, served as discussion moderator for a meeting on Wednesday night regarding the prevalence of substance abuse in Cheyenne and Laramie County. The public meeting, held in the Cottonwood Room of Laramie County Library, was planned and organized by Cheyenne City Councilmember Richard Johnson.

Amy Spieker with Cheyenne Regional Medical Center opens the discussion about drug abuse, crime and mental illness during a public meeting Wednesday, April 10 inside the Cottonwood Room in Laramie County Library. (Jared Gendron/Cap City News)

The following Laramie County and Wyoming state leaders participated in the substance abuse discussion:

  • Mark Francisco, Cheyenne police chief
  • Brian Kozac, Laramie County sheriff
  • Rebecca Reid, Laramie County coroner
  • Sylvia Hackl, Laramie County district attorney
  • Rocky Edmonds, Laramie County assistant district attorney
  • Kurt Zunker, department head for Laramie County Treatment Court programs

Laramie County leaders acknowledged such challenges during Wednesday’s public meeting. Elected officials discussed the current state of drug use throughout Laramie County, the variables driving substance abuse, the ways in which Wyoming is under-serving its residents and how medical professionals are approaching the challenges to treating drug and mental health crises.

Overdoses in Laramie County

Over the past decade, overdose fatalities have risen by 85%, Coroner Reid said on Monday. The primary culprits for drug overdoses are fentanyl and methamphetamine, several leaders agreed. According to Reid’s office’s 2023 annual report, fentanyl and meth together made up more than half of the county’s 30 accidental drug-related deaths. A full copy of the office’s report can be viewed below.

DA Hackl said nearly every case her office prosecutes is tangled with instances of substance issues.

“Almost every crime we see in my office has, at its base or somewhere in its makeup, drug use or alcohol abuse,” Hackl said. “Drugs are much more pervasive than just drug crimes. They really do impact all sorts of aspects of our community. And just because somebody’s not charged with a drug crime doesn’t mean that drugs aren’t part of the crime they committed.”

Individuals enrolled in the Laramie County Treatment Courts — made up of the Adult Drug and DUI court programs — are typically addicted to several substances, said Zunker, who often works with patients who are using both methamphetamine and fentanyl. He compared using these two substances in tandem to playing a game of Russian Roulette.

Sheriff Kozac runs the Laramie County Detention Center, and substance abuse has been running rampant among inmates. Deputies managing the jail are now carrying the overdose medication Narcan on them at all times. So far in 2024, Narcan has been administered in the detention facility seven times, Kozac said.

Kozac has noticed that when inmates struggling with drug issues like fentanyl are released from jail, they have withdrawal and immediately seek out drugs. Those people will administer the same drug dosage they previously took into their system, which triggers drug poisoning.

From left: Mark Francisco, Rebecca Reid, Rocky Edmonds, Kurt Zunker, Brian Kozac and Sylvia Hackl sit inside the Cottonwood Room in Laramie County Library during a public discussion about local drug and substance abuse on Wednesday, April 10 in Cheyenne. (Jared Gendron/Cap City News)

Factors driving substance abuse

Easy access to drugs

Police Chief Francisco said he has seen a stark rise in access to drugs, particularly the synthetic opioid fentanyl. According to the city department’s recent annual crime report, Cheyenne law enforcement experienced both an increase in drug and narcotic violations as well as drug distribution reports from 2022 to 2023. The city seized 250 products suspected to be fentanyl in 2023, a 72% increase from the previous year.

Kozac said as far as black market prices go, fentanyl has proven to be the cheapest for the Wyomingites looking to get their fix.

A gateway

Aside from fentanyl, several speakers said they believe cannabis serves as a gateway drug to harder substances.

“It’s not as innocent as a lot of people think,” Edmonds said, adding that offenders he has worked with regret taking weed, which they say led them down the path to more intense drugs.

Recreational and medical cannabis is currently illegal under Wyoming law. However, possession of recreational marijuana is legal for adults aged 21 in Colorado.

Lax border regulations

Francisco also brought the topic of border control into Wednesday’s conversation. He said the lax regulations currently in place at the southern U.S. border are partially to blame for the drug epidemic, as Mexican cartels can more easily pedal product into the country.

Hackl agreed with the police chief regarding border control and access to illicit drugs.

“We sit at the intersection of two major interstates,” Hackl said. “They’re pipelines, and we don’t have anyone from the highway patrol here. … I’ve never heard anyone say they couldn’t go get some pills. I’ve never heard that. So obviously, we have a supply problem in this town in that it’s too readily available.”

Laramie County Sheriff Brian Kozac listens to District Attorney Sylvia Hackl speak at a public discussion Wednesday, April 10 inside the Cottonwood Room in Laramie County Library. (Jared Gendron/Cap City News)

Limitations to addressing drug abuse

Accessibility to medication and treatment is severely limited to low-income Wyomingites, Zunker said. He blames the state’s lack of healthcare availability on lawmakers’ indecision to expand Medicaid, the need-based government program that helps low-income or needy individuals pay for medical treatment. Wyoming is one of 10 U.S. states that has not expanded Medicaid.

Mackenzie Howard is the program manager for the Laramie County Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, program, which aims to meet the needs of repeat drug offenders and reduce recidivism. Howard stated that Cheyenne doesn’t have a sober-living facility. The absence of a transitional living center presents an obstacle to substance abusers because once they are released back into the community, the individuals typically return to an environment that pulls them back into drug use.

Zunker echoed Howard’s statements. He added that Wyoming does not contain enough treatment beds, and the ones already in place are full.

“This is addiction, and addiction is a chronic brain disease,” Zunker said. “And we’re not treating it as a chronic disease.”

Francisco agreed with Zunker, saying that offenders he has encountered are often back on the street because they can’t get access to treatment or hospital space. Kozac furthered that point, saying that several chronically ill inmates have been waiting more than a year to be assessed by the state psychiatric hospital.

“So essentially, my jail has become a mental health hospital,” Kozac said. “Frankly, they don’t belong in jail, they belong in the hospital. And I’m saddened by this, because it’s not a sheriff’s responsibility to do this, but we’re being forced to because of a lack of resources from our state government and our state hospital.”

How the county is handling drug abuse

Addressing mental health

Mental illness and substance abuse go hand in hand, Francisco said. His office, as well as the Laramie County Sheriff’s Office, has been involved in Cheyenne Regional Medical Center’s Co-Responder Program. The program, which began in summer 2023, matches law enforcement officers with a CRMC behavioral health therapist to assist individuals undergoing crises.

Reid noted that many people who have died by suicide over the years were using drugs prior to their death. Over the past several years, she has been working with a variety of professionals to identify risk factors and connect with families who have lost loved ones to suicide or overdoses.

In 2019, Reid created the Grief Support Team, which provides financial and emotional assistance to families who have lost a family member. The coroner recently held a dodgeball fundraiser event for the support team. She also founded the Suicide Fatality Review Board and Overdose Fatality Review Board teams in 2022.

“We don’t stop just right after the call,” Reid said. “There are some families that we’ve still been in communications with after four or five years. … We’re here for the long run, we’ll be able to help you through the grief process.”

Kozac said his department is renovating Special Treatment Pods for inmates with mental health issues. The jail is set to receive a new correctional treatment unit to more swiftly assess inmates for addiction severity. His department also recently hired a medical contractor and two full-time psychiatric nurses.

Cheyenne and Laramie County residents listen to government officials and law enforcement address substance abuse Wednesday, April 10 inside the Cottonwood Room in Laramie County Library. (Jared Gendron/Cap City News)

Criminal justice system

Assistant DA Edmonds noted that under Wyoming’s Addicted Offender Accountability Act, felony offenders are required to receive substance abuse assessment. The act requires the court to take an individual’s substance abuse into account when convicting them, Edmonds said. Overall, the purpose of the act is to open pathways to treatment for offenders who struggle with drugs.

County staff working in the LEAD program are working to reduce barriers to healthcare, Howard said. In many cases, offenders who need to take a drug test or travel for treatment lack the financial resources to acquire them. Howard’s staff provides these resources to individuals struggling with addiction.

The Drug and DUI court programs have been largely successful, according to Zunker. He said that 70% of individuals who have graduated from the program never end up back in the system.

“Recovery happens,” Zunker said. “There is hope out there.”


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