digging into data on doctors and nurses who prescribe unusually large quantities of opiates

Colorado’s new U.S. attorney wants law enforcement to treat overdose deaths as homicides as he focuses on opioids


Jason Dunn, appointed by President Trump, laid out some of his office’s redoubled tactics in an interview with The Colorado Sun — his most extensive remarks to the news media since taking office


Jason Dunn. (Provided by Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck)

Jason Dunn, Colorado’s new U.S. attorney, has made stemming the state’s opioid epidemic a top focus of his office, encouraging law enforcement in the state to investigate deaths as homicides. He is also digging into data on doctors and nurses who prescribe unusually large quantities of opioid painkillers, with an eye toward prosecuting those who are illegally diverting the drugs and, he feels, adding to the scourge of heroin.

“You have dealers who either know they are selling fentanyl instead of heroin or know that it has already caused death and continue to sell it,” Dunn said in an interview with The Colorado Sun Friday in his downtown Denver office, where he offered his most detailed remarks since taking office in October. “We think they’ve met the required element that they can be charged.”

The tactics mark a redoubling of efforts that began in Colorado’s U.S. Attorney’s Office under Dunn’s predecessors and amid growing efforts statewide to tackle an epidemic that killed 560 Coloradans in 2017. They also come after Dunn warned Denver against a proposal to allow a supervised drug consumption site where people could inject heroin under the watch of a medical professional in an effort to reduce overdose deaths.

“We created a task force within our office that’s both criminal and civil,” Dunn said. “The civil side is really interesting because it’s focused on the diversion of opioids — from doctors, pharmacies, nurse practitioners. Clearly, if we can get people to stop abusing prescription opioids, then we can have a huge impact on the heroin problem.”

Federal prosecutors in Colorado have been combing through Medicare and Medicaid databases, as well as the records of Tricare, the military health insurance program, to find out which medical professionals are prescribing the most opioids, including OxyContin, in the state. They are also looking to see if they have patients who are traveling long distances, an indication that a person might be seeking out drugs for illicit reasons.

“You can see, when you start charting it, where the top people are,” he said. “… There’s a three-drug cocktail of opioids that apparently enhances the opioid high. We look at, OK, which doctors are prescribing that three-drug cocktail the most. Because there’s really no reason you would do it other than for illegitimate purposes. So we’re using that data and we’re starting to see some success with that.”

In terms of what those successes are, Dunn said, “most of it, I can’t go into detail because they’re ongoing investigations.”

“While there are a lot of U.S. attorneys around the country that are doing that data mining, we’ve taken it to kind of another level,” Dunn said.

Dunn said his attorneys have been working to get access to Colorado’s state-level opioid prescribing database, which has far more information. But the information is only available via subpoena, which the federal prosecutor called a “hindrance.”

The tree of life at the Harm Reduction Action Center is dedicated to those who have survived an overdose. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“There’s a state statute that says law enforcement can’t get access to that database without a subpoena and only in a specific investigation. So we’ve served subpoenas and gotten it on a specific case-by-case basis,” he said. “But we really would love to have that data, even if it’s anonymized initially to mine it and see where the statistical outliers are. We’ve had conversations with the state about that.”

State Sen. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat who is heavily vested in ending the opioid crisis, said she would like to see enforcement action focused on pharmaceutical companies and not on doctors and nurses. She said charging those medical professionals could lead to more problems.

MORE: The opioid maker being sued by Colorado for fanning the overdose epidemic says everything it did was FDA-approved

“More people will die because they will be cut off from their prescriptions,” she said. “They will go to heroin to deal with their withdrawal.”

Dunn calls his plan to approach overdose deaths as homicides a “street-level” approach.

There’s currently a national debate about charging drug dealers in overdose deaths. Opponents worry that doing so would prevent people from seeking help in an overdose situation and question if it really serves as a deterrent.

Pettersen, whose mother has struggled with heroin addiction, cautioned against criminalizing the issue. She says she has nothing but hatred for the man who introduced her mom to heroin and would give the drug to her, even while she was in the hospital. But Pettersen said she recognizes that he, too, had a problem.

State Sen. Brittany Pettersen, D-Pettersen, talks to reporters about the introduction of the red flag gun bill on Feb. 14, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“It’s incredibly complicated,” she said. “A lot of people who are dealing drugs are also addicted and trying to feed their habit. They are doing desperate things to feed their disease. Throwing these people in jail is not going to solve the opioid crisis.”

Many states, Colorado not among them, either have specific laws on the books to use in those situations or are considering them. The federal government also has a distribution of heroin resulting in death charge.

Fifth Judicial District Attorney Bruce Brown, a Democrat whose territory covers Summit and Eagle counties and surrounding areas, has been using this tactic for years. His office has successfully pursued a number of cases against people who provided the heroin used in fatal overdoses, charging defendants with criminally negligent homicide, manslaughter or drug distribution offenses.

“Generally speaking, the law enforcement community customarily treated people who overdosed not so much as victims of crime, but maybe victims of their own criminality,” Brown said. “I have tried and worked very hard with our local law enforcement to convince them that they are homicides and the people who overdose have a health issue.”

Brown said Colorado’s safe-harbor law should prevent people who call 911 in an overdose situation from facing charges. But, he said, whether the tactic serves as a deterrent is a difficult question to answer, though he’s hopeful.

“Our goal is that the dealers think twice,” Brown said. “I do think that in some way there’s a likelihood that we’re saving lives. Can we definitely say that? No.”

Dunn said his office has set up a training program to encourage local law enforcement in Colorado to treat overdose deaths not as accidents, but as potential homicides with crime scenes.

He is urging law enforcement officers to check fatal overdose scenes for pill bottles or cellphones with information that might point investigators toward the drug supplier.

“We’re trying to encourage local law enforcement to actually contact us,” Dunn said. “We’re actually giving them the name of one of our attorneys here that, even in the moment at the scene, to call him and he can say, ‘Look, do this, this, this and this at the scene and treat it like a homicide.’”

Dunn’s office already has successfully prosecuted one Denver-area heroin dealer in a case involving an overdose and in which a woman’s body was dumped in an alley. A second person also has been charged in that case.

During the interview, Dunn re-emphasized his opposition to a supervised drug-consumption site in Colorado. That idea, an attempt to bring a first-in-the-nation program to Denver following a similar effort in Vancouver, Canada, has been shelved.

“I think a safe-injection site is a bad idea,” he said. “Again, we don’t weigh in on specific legislation or city ordinances, but I felt like it was important to let people know that we take that very seriously and that the Department of Justice takes it very seriously. I felt like the right thing to do was, working with the Drug Enforcement Administration, to let the city and the state and the public know that we will treat that seriously and that federal law enforcement will engage if such a facility were opened.”

Dunn said that if such a site were to open, there are a range of options he could take to push back. “It ranges from everything from asset seizure — seize the facility — to civil under the Controlled Substance Act all the way to criminal (charges) for individuals.”

A pamphlet at the Harm Reduction Action Center depicts a diorama of a booth at a safe injection site where IV drug users would inject heroin or methamphetamine. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Whatever happened to our FOURTH AMENDMENT – probably cause and unreasonable search and seizure ?
Either the reporter who wrote this article misquoted this attorney or NOT …
He is also digging into data on doctors and nurses who prescribe unusually large quantities of opioid painkillers, with an eye toward prosecuting those who are illegally diverting the drugs and, he feels, adding to the scourge of heroin.
Does this mean that this attorney is “fishing” in one or more state’s controlled substances prescription database and using HIS OPINION as to who is prescribing unusually large quantities.
Here is a mini CV from his website:  http://jasonadunn.com/meet-the-attorney/

I graduated from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University with a double major in political science and environmental policy and planning. I then attended Tulane University Law School in New Orleans, Louisiana, where I graduated with a Juris Doctor in 2004. I was admitted to the Virginia State Bar in 2004 and I began my legal career as a public defender in Portsmouth, Virginia. In 2008, I was admitted to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. In 2011 I was admitted to the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. In the following year, I was admitted to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. In 2014, I opened my solo practice in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

I began my career as a public defender in the City of Portsmouth, Virginia, and briefly practiced with local firms before opening my solo practice in Virginia Beach in 2014. My practice is primarily focused on collections, civil litigation, personal injury and criminal defense. I specialize in real estate litigation and have collected delinquent real estate taxes for almost 15 years, over seven different jurisdictions.

After reading this CV several times… I see nothing that would suggest that this attorney has any  medical training/experience nor a degree in any medical field. One must wonder where “his feelings” are coming from… LOWER POSTERIOR ORIFICE ?

5 Responses

  1. What a ‘sit down’ guy.

  2. If these idiots would chase after the cartels who are supplying all of the fentanyl-laced ILLICIT street substances (which is what is causing so many overdose deaths) as hard as they chase after the very few doctors who are compassionate enough to still treat pain APPROPRIATELY, perhaps we wouldn’t have such a high overdose death rate.

    • Exactly. I was thinking the same thing. What happened to the war on drugs? The majority of people who are dying are overdosing on illicit drugs! What? It is too much work to go after the dealers and where the dealers are getting the drugs from? So, this is easier to go into a computer and look at data that doctors and pharmacists are forced to put our private info into and go after them. How lazy can the DEA be? Tells you more about our couch potato society!

  3. Yeah, his “method”, will allow him to sit back in his leather chair in that safe office and think about the best steakhouse where he can meet the others in the group and decide how long they can milk money out of whatever fund they’re drawing from.
    You bet they will be turning in those receipts so the taxpayers can pay for their meal.
    Keep watching , there will be Meetings & Conferences up in the mountains, Inverness or Telluride perhaps Aspen in the hot tub. That’s where a lot of this money to help with the so-called opioid crisis ends up. More so-called training of senseless stuff that a 5th Grader knows through common sense.
    The end result will not be measurable and will just be made bunch of rhetoric.
    If 560 ODs are involved how much is this costing. And the fact that he has so many feelings about things including the safe injection site ban, indicates he is not willing or interested and saving lives.

    I’m thinking that the safe injection sites may have saved at least half of the 560 deaths that year. What is wrong with these people?

  4. “…killed 560 Coloradans in 2017.” What an epidemic; that’s almost as many people as died from the flu in Colorado that same year. Much less than 10% that died from cancer (7829), much less than 10% from heart disease (7060). Less than many other causes of death in the state: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/states/colorado/colorado.htm

    Once again, hysteria rules over legality, sense, sanity, evidence, or anything resembling reason. Too bad the newspaper site (once again) does not allow comments. It’s just another way to destroy pain patients by attacking the few doctors left willing to prescribe reasonable quantities of pain meds. To say that I hate these brainless crusaders would be to commit one of the understatements of all time.

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