A newly formed council of Arapahoe County leaders discussed plans to spend millions in funds won through a multi-state settlement with some of the country's largest drug giants during a Sept. 22 virtual meeting.
The Arapahoe County Regional Opioid Council — comprised of 12 members including elected officials, law enforcement and social service workers — will help guide about $25 million in new spending over the next 18 years.
The money is but a slice of the massive $26 billion settlement to states and local governments agreed to in February by drug distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, McKesson and manufacturer Johnson and Johnson, which faced lawsuits for their role in fueling the opioid epidemic.
In Arapahoe County, officials estimate there were more than 19 overdose deaths per 100,000 residents last year, with more than 500 opioid prescriptions dispensed per 1,000 residents.
Deaths related to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid now found more commonly in illicit street drugs, have also risen. In Arapahoe County, 56% of all overdose deaths were related to fentanyl in 2021, up from 47% the year before.
“The opioid crisis in our area has affected all corners of our society and all walks of life," said Arapahoe County Commissioner Nancy Sharp, who serves on the council.
To combat this rise, the council plans to focus its funding on five issues: prevention, treatment, recovery, harm reduction and criminal justice.
“Early intervention, inpatient and outpatient services and withdraw management," make up some of these measures, said Commissioner Carrie Warren-Gully, who also serves on the council.
Harm reduction tactics could mean "expanding access to opioid overdose reversal medication, supporting staff supply and space needs for harm reduction” as well as "mobile units and training on harm reduction" for law enforcement, Warren-Gully said.
While the council consists of mostly public officials, an advisory group — which council leaders have called a Technical Advisory Committee — will consist of subject-matter experts and residents with lived experience with opioid abuse.
This group, leaders said, will help inform council's decision making so that “the communities that are bearing the brunt of this burden will have a meaningful seat at the table," said Commissioner Nancy Jackson.
During the meeting, officials also polled listeners on a variety of questions related to the opioid epidemic. The findings showed the issue had a strong presence for those listening in, which was at least 1,200, according to county spokesperson Luc Hatlestad.
Asked how severe the problem of opioid abuse is in the community, 46% said "very severe." Asked if listeners personally knew someone who has struggled with opioid addiction, 45% said yes. And when asked how residents would like to prioritize the funds, 60% said they wanted a mix of treatment and prevention.
Residents also asked a slew of questions, including how the funds could help people with addictions who are incarcerated and what alternate forms of treatment may be available.
Gretchen Rydin, a City of Littleton councilmember who also serves as the opioid council's chair, said addressing treatment and recovery in prisons is a crucial component of the opioid crisis and called incarceration "part of the cycle, and part of the pipeline."
Asked if funds could be invested in alternate treatments like psilocybin — a natural compound found in psychedelic mushrooms that has been linked in some studies to treating depression and addiction — Rydin said there are challenges.
Because the drug is not federally regulated, and its sale, use and possession remains illegal in most of the country, federal funding for such treatment is currently off the table.
But that could begin to change. Colorado voters will be asked a question in November about decriminalizing the possession and use of psychedelic mushrooms and allowing “healing centers” where people could buy and use the drugs.
Rydin said legalization and investment in such drugs for their healing potential could be on the horizon.
"I think we’re going to see more and more of that in the years to come," she said.
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