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Boulder, Colorado, is a smaller city located in Boulder County. In 2016, there were about 108,108 residents, with a median age of about 29 years old, compared to Colorado’s higher median age of almost 37 years old. The area received the playful nickname of the Republic of Boulder and is near the foothills of the Front Range. National Geographic named Boulder “the happiest city in the United States.” Like many other cities in Colorado, Boulder was founded because of the Gold Rush, but the town is now more known for scientific research centers, a lot of artists, extremely athletic citizens, and the University of Colorado.

While much of the state struggles with high rates of substance abuse and addiction, residents in Boulder are no different. Although Boulder is a smaller metropolitan area than Denver or Colorado City, people who live in the scenic city are still at risk of developing drug or alcohol abuse problems because they are exposed to high rates of addiction and drug abuse.

Doctor Showing Man Results

Getting Help in Boulder

Although Boulder is small, it fiercely works to improve the lives of its residents, including those who need help ending substance abuse and addiction. The small city provides a lot of options for preventing and overcoming this condition.

Since Colorado passed legislation to implement a prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP), Boulder has taken this program and expanded it. One way that Boulder is working to reduce opioid addiction and overdose death is by prescribing fewer of these drugs through emergency rooms. For more than 10 years, most places in the United States used pain as “the fifth vital sign,” meaning that the experience of pain was just as important to treat as breathing and heartbeat. Now, Boulder emergency rooms are focusing on other ways to treat pain, and they prescribe opioids only when absolutely necessary.

The Boulder County website lists options for government programs that can help one overcome substance abuse or addiction. These include a list of Colorado-based treatment providers, a syringe exchange for people struggling with injection drugs, classes and groups on substance abuse topics, a commitment to treatment, and other mental health partners. There is also an assessment tool, so you can better understand if your drinking patterns might be problematic. The Boulder County Network of Care also offers a list of substance abuse treatment providers.

Every year, thousands of young adults enter college at the University of Colorado Boulder. Young adults typically have the highest rates of substance abuse problems, ranging from prescription stimulants and sedatives to illicit drugs like cocaine or heroin to legal drugs including alcohol and marijuana, which are not legal for college-aged students until they are 21 years old.

Substance abuse takes a huge toll on mental, emotional, behavioral, physical, financial, and legal health. People who struggle with addiction are more likely to get sick, drop out of school, and suffer from unemployment and homelessness than other groups. To help combat this problem, the University of Colorado Boulder offers a list of resources for their students, parents and family, and staff as well as other types of resources to prevent, learn about, and get help ending substance abuse.

Drug and Alcohol Abuse in the City and County of Boulder

Although rates of substance abuse in Boulder are high, similar to other cities and counties in Colorado, the reported rates of drug overdose death are dropping. After peaking at 54 people’s deaths caused by drugs or alcohol in 2013, Boulder County reported that rates began dropping with 37 deaths involving intoxicating substances in 2016. However, this rate is still higher than the 2001 low of 25 drug-involved deaths.

Residents in Boulder report that substance abuse is among the top three most important points to deal with and one of the leading contributors to problems finding mental and behavioral health treatment. There are about 12.9 deaths involving drug overdose out of every 100,000 Boulder residents, which is lower than in many counties in Colorado but still preventable.

Which Drugs Are Abused Most Often in Boulder?  


Among adults in Boulder, about 18 percent drink in a high-risk way, meaning they binge drink or drink heavily. High school students in Boulder County report the second-highest rate of alcohol abuse, with 38 percent stating that they abused alcohol at least once in their lives; 22.1 percent binge drink; and 11.6 percent reported that they started drinking early in life.


Recreational and medical marijuana use is legal all over Colorado, but people who possess and use this drug must be at least 21 years old, and the laws regarding use are similar to those related to alcohol. Young people in Boulder who abuse this drug are breaking the law and putting themselves at risk for struggles with addiction later in life. Reportedly, about 9.5 percent of 9th grade students in Boulder County abuse marijuana; about 3.9 percent of high school students report that they tried marijuana for the first time in 2016.

Boulder regulates the production and sale of marijuana within its borders based on Colorado law but defines specifics for the city’s residents. There are four kinds of marijuana retail establishments: where the product is sold, where the plants are grown and cultivated, where the drug is extracted and manufactured into sellable products, and testing facilities where the product is ensured to be free of bacteria and the THC content is tested so it can be appropriately labeled. Again, residents of Boulder must be at least 21 years old to purchase the drug recreationally and at least 18 to have a medical marijuana card.

Recreational or retail marijuana establishments must be licensed with Boulder in order to operate in the city. In some instances, you can grow marijuana in your home, but this is tightly restricted. You can give your homegrown product to another adult who is 21 or older, for example, but you may not sell what you grow at home, and you may not have more than six plants. Breaking these laws, including driving while intoxicated on marijuana, is a crime in Boulder and in Colorado in general.


While young people, from adolescents to adults 26 years old, typically do not receive multiple prescription drugs, especially prescription narcotics, middle-aged and older adults may receive multiple prescriptions for these substances, other sedatives, and/or stimulants. Older adults are especially at risk of being prescribed multiple opioid painkillers in Boulder. A 2016 report found that, of the opioid painkillers prescribed to people ages 55 and older, 48 percent received just one painkiller; 25 percent received two or three opioid painkiller prescriptions; 5 percent received four prescriptions; and 24 percent received five or more. In 2016, there were 765.4 prescriptions for opioid painkillers per 100,000 residents in Boulder County.

Between 2012 and 2014, there were 2,404 visits to emergency rooms across the state of Colorado due to opioid overdoses; Boulder accounted for 87 of these visits, which was one of the lowest rates of emergency department admission for drugs in the state. There were 112 admissions to hospitals for opioid poisoning over a three-year period. While this may look good, Boulder has a lower population than other centers in the western state. Ultimately, Boulder ranks 18th out of 26 counties with overdose data available.

Man Taking Prescription Pills

Prescription Drugs  

Boulder County prescribers wrote 75 percent of the prescriptions that were dispensed within that county in 2016, and about 81 percent of the prescriptions dispensed within the state, showing that Boulder has ongoing access to prescription drugs. Although one’s county of residence can differ than where one receives or fills a prescription, the rate of prescribing and dispensing in Boulder is high compared to the rest of Colorado.

In 2016, there were 316.2 prescriptions for benzodiazepines out of every 100,000 residents and 160.5 prescriptions for stimulants out of every 100,000 residents. This high rate of prescribing drugs increases the risk that the individual taking the prescription may become addicted to it or that someone who has not received the prescription will find and steal the pills to abuse.

While prescription drug abuse is declining among adolescents all over the U.S. in the state of Colorado, this preventable problem is still serious in Boulder County. In 2015, 14.3 percent of high school students in that county reported that they abused prescription drugs for non-medical reasons.

Help Is Available in Boulder

There are all kinds of resources available in Boulder that provide evidence-based treatment for you or a loved one. Start by talking to a physician about your concerns for your patterns of alcohol or drug use, or ask about a loved one’s patterns. They can refer you to an addiction specialist who can get you started with detox.


Boulder, Colorado. City-Data.com. 

Go Local in Boulder. (September 12, 2018). Colorado.com.  

Death Rate Due to Drug Poisoning. (2014-2016). Boulder County Health Compass.  

Marijuana in Boulder. City of Boulder, Colorado.  

Recreational Marijuana Businesses. City of Boulder, Colorado.  

Community Health Needs Assessment. (2017-2019). Boulder Community Health.  

Death by Drugs: Colorado at a Record High. (April 2018). Colorado Health Institute.  

Making the Wise Investment: Statewide Needs Assessment of Primary Prevention for Substance Abuse. (February 2018). Colorado Office of Behavioral Health (OBH) and the Colorado Health Institute. 

Reduce Substance Abuse. Boulder County Health Compass.  

Boulder County Prescription Drug Profile. (2015). Colorado.gov. 

Boulder County ERs Reduce Opioid Use in Face of Drug Abuse Crisis. (June 23, 2018).Times-Call Local News.  

Help for Someone Abusing Drugs or Alcohol. Boulder County.org. 

The Resource Book. Network of Care, Boulder County.