Law officers, county commissioners and addiction specialists who gathered in southwestern Colorado this week to figure out how to pull the state out of the fentanyl crisis agreed on this: Big money from opioid settlements is making a dent in their ability to offer services.
Attorney General Phil Weiser announced the third round of funding for substance abuse programs statewide, part of an estimated $458 million that Colorado is expected to dispense to regional “opioid abatement” councils over 18 years. The funds come from payouts from pharmaceutical companies held accountable for the nation’s opioid epidemic.
Colorado has sent almost $34 million to schools, counties and other community programs in the past year, and the attorney general announced an additional $2.5 million Thursday while in Montrose at the annual Opioid Abatement Conference.
The Attorney General’s Office is tracking the spending so far, along with anticipated funding for each region through 2038, on a public dashboard.
Colorado Charter School Institute, which provides drug treatment services at 5280 High School in Denver, received a $470,000 grant in the latest round of funding. The school incorporates addiction recovery services into the school day and has a 70% graduation rate.
The health department for Las Animas and Huerfano counties in southern Colorado will get $500,000 to create a new “one-stop shop” health campus in Walsenburg. The plan is to “increase services and confidentiality” for people seeking opioid addiction treatment, and it will include space for child care and education programs.
The Attorney General’s Office has secured more than $700 million in settlements after suing multiple pharmaceutical companies, including Johnson & Johnson and Purdue Pharma. Of that, 60% goes to the regional opioid abatement entities, while the rest is divided among state, local and county governments.
This year’s conference focused on fentanyl, which is considered the third wave of the opioid epidemic following prescription opioids and heroin. Fentanyl-laced pills, typically made to look like Xanax or OxyContin, killed 920 people in Colorado last year. About 130 of those people were 24 or younger.
“If any kid is offered a Xanax, it is exceedingly likely that what they are being given is fentanyl, with an amount that can kill,” Weiser said in Montrose. “We are living at a time that is more dangerous for kids than may have ever existed, certainly more than we were growing up.”
The top two ways young people die in Colorado are drugs and guns, the attorney general said.
Weiser said the system to distribute the settlement funds is meant to safeguard against money going to anything other than behavioral health and addiction services. When Colorado received funds from settlements with tobacco companies, “the monies were, fair to say, hijacked for other purposes,” he said. The federal tobacco settlement did not stipulate that states had to spend the money on prevention or treatment.
“And we have a youth vaping epidemic because we took our eye off the ball,” he said. “We’re going to stay focused in Colorado.”
Moffat County Sheriff KC Hume, who runs a 105-bed jail, described how the county has incorporated drug treatment into the jail during the past six years. When he became sheriff in 2015, the jail had one nurse from a national correctional health care company who worked there two days per week, he said.
Now he has three physician assistants on staff, as well as a mental health provider. The team helps people leaving the jail continue drug treatment and medical care in the community in the hope of keeping them from coming back. Violence among inmates and on staff has decreased dramatically, he said.
“We are stemming the tide,” Hume said. “We have success stories that are coming out of the Moffat County Jail.”
The attorney general and local governments created an agreement in 2021 to split the opioid settlement funds and use them to build treatment centers and prevention programs. The agreement divided the state into 19 regions, which will share 60% of the settlement money. Each region has its own governing council made up of local officials who oversee the local spending.
State agencies, regions and local governments can request money every year for 18 years from Colorado Opioid Abatement Council, of which Weiser is the chair.