Millions of dollars and millions of words are spent on fighting Colorado's drug addiction every year. Real intentions, real money and real lives are at stake. That's the fight Colorado is in, and it's emotional, fiscal and, yes, political.
Nearly 3,000 Americans died in the Sept. 11 attacks. The opioid overdose emergency now kills the same number of Americans every three weeks. The overdose death toll has grown 532 percent since 2002, overtaking car crashes as a leading cause of death; last year, 528 Coloradans died due to opioid overdose in another record year for drug deaths. By now, most Americans know someone who has struggled with addiction and many have lost someone they love.
ColoradoPolitics.com and other news media have reported extensively on efforts by the 2017 legislature to tackle the rampant abuse of opioids across Colorado; notably, a pilot program authored by two Democratic state lawmakers from Pueblo was OK’d by their peers and signed into law by the governor. Senate Bill 74, sponsored by Sen. Leroy Garcia and Rep. Daneya Esgar, will use marijuana tax revenue to train practitioners and expand treatment for opioid addiction in Pueblo and Routt counties, two places hit hard by the abuse of the drugs.
Of course, that effort just scratches the surface. It’s tempting whenever the legislature acts on a crisis to declare it solved, but we all know better, and an overview by Pulp Newsmagazine of the ongoing fight against rampant opioid abuse in Pueblo reminds us of the scale of the problem. Pulp’s Kara Mason writes:
The evolution of opioid addiction in Colorado, particularly in Southern Colorado, has been aggressive to say the least.
In April, a multi-agency report under the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention showcased a grave picture of the problem across the state: heroin-related deaths doubled from 2011 to 2015, heroin seizures by Colorado law enforcement increased 2,035 percent during the same time period and the number of people who were in treatment for heroin addiction increased 128 percent.
And one takeaway from Mason’s reporting is that delving deeper into the opioid issue involves more than just legislation; for one thing, it requires concerted action by the communities most affected, like Pueblo:
In each 2015 and 2016, Pueblo County saw 12 overdoses related to opioid use — the highest death count in the state, three times the state rate. And according to Dr. Michael Nerenberg, who runs the mobile needle exchange program in Pueblo, the problem isn’t getting better. It’s getting worse.
At a February Pueblo City Council work session Nerenberg said over the course of a year — June 2015 to June 2016 — the exchange had a reported 3,020 visits, which comes out to just over 250 visits per month. The needle exchange saw 420 total new clients and distributed nearly 200,000 needles. 118,000 were collected by the volunteers, which Nerenberg said is a conservative estimate.
How have city government and other agencies responded? What more could they do? And what role can the federal government play? Read Mason’s story for insights into those and many other questions swirling around Colorado’s opioid crisis. Pueblo is as good a place as any to look for answers; the Steel City is on the frontline of the battle.
Colorado’s Cynthia Coffman is joining a bipartisan coalition of state attorneys general to investigate whether drug manufacturers’ marketing contribute to the opioid addiction crises in their states. Coffman talked of swords and shields.
“Every day our country and state lose loved ones to the opioid epidemic,” Coffman said in a statement Thursday morning. “My office understands that the fight against opioid addiction requires many partners. We will use the law as a sword and a shield to best serve those we represent — as a sword to hold accountable those who promote or sell opioids in violation of state law, and as a shield to protect the vulnerable struggling with addiction.”
The list of attorneys general asking for the investigation was not immediately available.
The strategy is similar to the one employed against tobacco companies by attorneys general, led by Mississippi, in the 1990s. Those cases led to huge payouts to states to encourage people not to smoke and recoup tax dollars spent on public health, as a result.
Last month, Ohio filed a lawsuit against five drug companies, similar to one filed earlier this year by Mississippi, alleging the companies downplay the risks while extending their brands.
In March, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri said she was conducting a probe of drugmakers, citing 91 Americans who die each day from heroin, prescription drugs and other opioids.
Drug companies did not have an immediate response Thursday, but in March Jessica Castles Smith, a spokeswoman for Johnson & Johnson, said, “We believe that we have acted appropriately, responsibly and in the best interests of patients regarding our opioid pain medications.”
Bloomberg News reported Thursday that more than 20 states, counties and cities have sued drugmakers over the opioid crisis in the last year. None of them are in Colorado. Among the defendants are Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma and McKesson Corp.
Coffman’s office said that between 2002 and 2014 Colorado experienced a 68 percent rise in drug overdose deaths, and nationally fatalities have increased four-fold since 1999, killing 33,091 people in 2015 alone, a number higher than the combined populations of Grand and Pitkin counties.
Coffman chairs the Colorado Substance Abuse Trend and Response Task Force, and which issued a report in April, in partnership with the state health department and the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, on the heroin crisis in Colorado. Heroin deaths alone rose from 79 in 2011 in Colorado to 160 in 2015.
Last September Coffman announced the Colorado Naloxone for Life Initiative to extend the use of the opioid overdose antidote Naloxone by law enforcement and other first-responders. To date the program has reported more than 170 overdose treatments.
Colorado Politics has kept readers abreast of efforts in the legislature to fight the rise of opioid addiction and deaths.
Rangely Police Chief Vince Wilczek has been a notable holdout, telling council members the drug might encourage rather than discourage use and opens his department up to liability.