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In this April 2, 2018 photo, pharmacist Steve Protzel poses for photos holding a bottle of OxyContin at Daniel's Pharmacy in San Francisco. (Jeff Chiu, AP file photo)

Roughly $400 million in settlement money expected to be secured by Colorado from drug companies sued for their alleged role in the opioid epidemic would be split between state and local governments under a tentative deal unveiled Thursday that calls for the money to be spent on building treatment facilities and bolstering prevention and education programs. 

The agreement, structured as a memorandum of understanding, still needs the approval of local governments to move forward, but it has the support of Attorney General Phil Weiser and top officials from Denver, and Adams, Logan and Pueblo counties, which were hit hard by the opioid crisis. 

The deal would break up the state into 19 regions, to which 60% of the settlement money would go. The regions will have their own governing councils made up of local public officials to oversee the local distribution of funds. 

Local governments would receive 20% of the settlement money, while 10% would go toward building drug treatment facilities. The remaining 10% would be managed by the attorney general’s office, which would use the dollars to create statewide strategies to deal with the opioid crisis, such as prevention and education programs.

The framework also calls for an oversight board made up of six members appointed by Colorado Counties Inc. and the Colorado Municipal League, six members appointed by the Attorney General and one nonvoting chairperson. 

The money Colorado expects to receive from opioid settlements is made up of $300 million from Johnson & Johnson along with three major drug distributors, Cardinal Health, McKesson and AmerisourceBergen. At least another $50 million is expected from Purdue Pharma, the creator of OxyContin, and from members of the Sackler family who owned the pharmaceutical giant. Mallinckrodt, another opioid maker, is expected to pay $25 million and $10 million likely will come from McKinsey & Company, a consulting firm that advised Purdue Pharma

Weiser said the state could get additional money from other settlements, and the agreement provides a guide for how to spend future money.

Weiser announced the deal at a news conference in Denver, where he signed the agreement and urged local governments to also sign on to the plan. He was joined by a cadre of local government officials, including Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, Logan County Commissioner Byron Pelton and Pueblo County Commissioner Garrison Ortiz.

The opioid crisis “started in the boardroom,” Weiser said, with executives who wanted to “make as much money pushing out these drugs, which were highly addictive.

“It’s time to hold them accountable,” he said.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser speaks to reporters at a news conference Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, on mail-in voting. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Hancock said local governments have spent millions of dollars dealing with the consequences of the epidemic, which has devastated families and led to otherwise healthy people “walking our streets like zombies.” 

The mayor told The Colorado Sun that the settlement money will go a long way toward helping the city’s medical and rehabilitative services recover some of the money they’ve had to spend to deal with the crisis. Hancock added that opioids have “exacerbated our issues and our challenges around homelessness.”

Meanwhile, rural counties have struggled with different problems stemming from the opioid crisis. Specifically, they’ve struggled to identify people who need help in sparsely populated areas. 

Logan County Commissioner Byron Pelton said that there’s one mental health center serving a ten county region in the northeastern plains, and that people have to drive 120 miles from Yuma County to reach the nearest detox facility in Greeley. 

“The resources are stretched thin,” Pelton said. 

Prowers County Commissioner Wendy Buxton-Andrade echoed those concerns, expressing hope that the settlement money will ensure “our jails do not become the detox centers, because right now that’s what we have in rural Colorado.”

Pueblo County Commissioner Garrison Ortiz told The Sun that one solution local leaders are looking at is a sort of “hub-and-spoke” model with a central treatment facility used by multiple service providers that have satellite offices in surrounding counties.

Even as officials make plans for how to spend the millions of dollars in settlement money, Weiser noted that the opioid epidemic is far from over. The spread of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, has been driving overdoses as of late.

Daniel Ducassi

Daniel Ducassi is a former Colorado Sun staff writer.