Patterns and Trends in Drug Abuse in Denver and Colorado: June 2013

Kristen A. Dixion, M.A., L.P.C.

Summary of Key Findings for the 2012 Reporting Period:

  • After alcohol, marijuana has continued to result in the highest number of primary treatment admis­sions in Denver and statewide in Colorado annually.
  • Heroin indicators had some mixed ranks with increasing trends.
  • Other opioid indicators had mixed ranks with mostly increasing trends.


Although indicators showed some mixed trends, marijuana continued to be a major drug of abuse in Colorado and the Denver/Boulder metropolitan area, based on treatment admissions data, hospital discharges, availability, the National Survey for Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), and law enforcement drug testing. Statewide, the proportion of primary marijuana treatment admissions has slightly decreased over the past couple of years, from 20.6 percent of all admissions in 2011 to 19.1 percent in 2012 (including alcohol). Similarly, Denver/Boulder metropolitan area (greater Denver) pri­mary marijuana treatment admissions decreased in recent years, from 2011 (21.6 percent) to 2012 (20.0 percent). Marijuana ranked first in Colorado drug-related hospital discharges in 2011 (excluding alcohol); both the number and rate of discharges increased from 2010 to 2011.In the Denver area, marijuana/cannabis ranked sec­ond, at 21.0 percent, among drug reports detected in drug items seized and identified in 2012 in National Forensic Laboratory Information System (NFLIS) laboratories. Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center (RMPDC) marijuana calls ranked first (excluding alcohol) for the second year in a row, with 98 human exposure calls. Some of the high ranking indicators for cocaine continued to decline and were showing downward and mixed trends.


In 2012, cocaine’s rank dropped to fifth in statewide treatment admissions and declined to fourth place in Denver metropolitan treatment admissions. Primary cocaine treatment admissions for both areas have steadily decreased over the past 5 years. Cocaine ranked third (behind marijuana and other opioids) in 2011 Colorado drug-related hospital discharges, excluding alcohol. Cocaine was the second most common drug (excluding alcohol) behind other opioids in Colorado death mentions in 2011. In 2011, cocaine ranked second (behind marijuana) for statewide illicit drug-related calls to the RMPDC. In the Denver area, cocaine ranked first (at 27.6 percent) among drug reports detected in seized and analyzed items in 2012 in NFLIS laboratories.


Methamphetamine indicators remained fairly stable with some mixed trends. Methamphetamine was more common than all other drugs except marijuana among treatment admissions both statewide and in the Denver/Boulder area in recent years. Although the proportion of statewide methamphetamine admissions steadily declined from 2005 to 2009, such admissions have since remained fairly stable (at 14.8 percent in 2012). The proportion of Denver area methamphetamine admissions has remained fairly stable over recent years and represented 11.5 percent of treatment admissions in 2012. Stimulants ranked fourth in Colorado drug-related hospital discharges, excluding alcohol. Both the number and rate of discharges decreased slightly from 2010 to 2011. Stimulants (mostly methamphetamine) were tied for the third most common drug category in Colorado death mentions (excluding alcohol) in 2011 and represented a very slight increase from 2010. Methamphetamine was readily available, due to heavy trafficking from Mexico.


Statewide and Denver area proportions of heroin treatment admissions have been increasing since 2008. Statewide heroin treatment admissions increased from 7.3 percent of all admissions in 2011 to 8.1 percent in 2012 (including alcohol). Denver area heroin treatment admissions increased also, from 10.4 percent of total admissions in 2011 to 11.1 percent in 2012 (includ­ing alcohol). Although heroin was not among the most common drugs found in Colorado death mentions, it increased from a rate of 0.9 per 100,000 population in 2010 to a rate of 1.6 per 100,000 in 2011. RMPDC calls related to heroin/morphine increased from 19 calls in 2010 to 47 calls in 2011.


Both statewide and Den­ver area other opioid treatment admissions have continued to increase over recent years. In 2012, statewide other opioid treatment admissions increased slightly, from 6.4 percent of all admissions in 2011 to 7.1 percent in 2012. Denver area primary treatment admissions for other opioids increased very slightly, to 6.5 percent in 2012. The rate of Colorado other opioid hospital discharges has steadily increased over recent years, and other opioids were among the most common drugs found in Colorado drug-related decedents in 2011.


Benzodiazepines (including the categories of "benzos," barbiturates, clonazepam, other sedatives, and tranquilizers) represented less than 1 percent of State treatment admissions in 2012.

Synthetic Drugs

Synthetic cannabinoids, such as “Spice,” “K2,” and “Black Mamba,” and “bath salts” marketed as “Cloud Nine,” “Vanilla Sky,” and “White Dove” have been a recent concern. However, there are few indicators that have the ability to isolate and capture data for synthetic cannabi­noids (cannabimimetics) and “bath salts” (substituted cathinones), making it difficult to determine actual usage levels. Synthetic cannabinoid human exposure calls remained stable from 2010 to 2011, with 44 calls, according to RMPDC data. Addition­ally, there were 44 RMPDC calls related to bath salts in 2011. In 2012, the Denver Crime Laboratory (DCL) reported an increase in synthetic drug exhibits with various combinations. They also reported large amounts of DMT (dimethyltryptamine) in the form of ground acacia bark. Synthetic cannabinoids (cannabimimetics) have been sched­uled in Colorado, which may limit future availability and use; however they continue to appear in the DCL data.


Beyond abuse of illicit drugs, alcohol remained Colorado’s most frequently abused substance and accounted for the most treatment admissions, poison control center calls, drug-related hospital discharges, and drug-related deaths in this reporting period.

At the time of this report, the author could be contacted at the Office of Behavioral Health, State of Colorado, 3824 West Princeton Circle, Denver, CO 80236, Phone: 303–866–7407, Fax: 303–866–7428, E-mail: