Our Next Attorney General Must Take Action to Address Colorado’s Opioid Epidemic

Our Next Attorney General Must Take Action to Address Colorado’s Opioid Epidemic

Across our state, the opioid epidemic is destroying lives and ripping families apart.  On average, another Coloradoan dies from an opioid overdose every 17 hours. In 2016, across the whole country, more people died of drug  overdoses–the vast majority of which were from opioids–than American casualties in the Vietnam and Iraq Wars combined.  More and more, Coloradans are becoming dependent on opioids and dying from overdoses.  And, in many cases, we are responding to this crisis by putting opioid users in jail.  We need to do better.

Today’s crisis has many causes, and calls for innovative and compassionate responses.  For starters, the pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors who encouraged the use of opioids—even though they knew the risks they posed—must be held accountable.  In too many cases, an oversupply of these drugs found their way into the market—sold illegally by drug dealers and pill mills.  An initial response, which is important, but inadequate, is to hold these drug dealers accountable for their unlawful behavior.  Also, we must try to understand the impact of the availability of legal cannabis, which, according to a preliminary study, may be providing an alternative source of pain management and may be associated with a reduction in the number of opioid-related deaths by 6.5 percent since 2015.

Under the leadership of our Governor, Colorado has taken some key steps to reduce the likelihood of individuals becoming dependent on opioids.  Colorado has recently restricted access to opioids under its Medicaid program and has established locations where people can safely dispose of unused opioids.  We are also—and must continue to step up—training our first responders on how to use the overdose-reversing drug naloxone.

As our next Attorney General, I will address the opioid epidemic by approaching it as a public health crisis.  While punishing drug dealers is appropriate, the jailing of opioid users—now widespread in Colorado—is harsh and ineffective.  We need our leaders across state and local government to use a range of innovative strategies to support drug treatment options.  And we also need to work to decrease the likelihood that people become dependent on opioids in the first place.

Holding Pharmaceutical Companies Responsible

Over the last 20 years, the increased access to opioids was very profitable for many pharmaceutical companies (as explained in this article.)  In Colorado, we saw a 100 percent increase in the number of opioid prescriptions between 1999 and 2016.  And during that time, the number of overdoses also went up drastically: over 200 percent by 2014.

As the Washington Post reported, a number of distributors didn’t take the Drug Enforcement Agency’s efforts seriously. They went to Congress to override the DEA’s authority to regulate this dangerous behavior. Thankfully, a number of State Attorneys General’s offices have either opened investigations or brought actions against these companies for distributing opioids that they knew or should have known would end up creating dependencies and/or end up in the hands of drug dealers.  As Attorney General, I will take action to hold these companies accountable.  By winning such cases, Colorado will receive financial support that it can use to support drug treatment, which is an important part of addressing this crisis.

Addressing Illegal Drug Trafficking

For those engaging in illegal drug trafficking, we must hold them accountable.  From 2011-15, the amount of heroin seized annually in Colorado rose over 2,000% and the number of heroin-related deaths more than doubled. As Attorney General, I will investigate and prosecute bad actors in the prescription opioid supply chain, and collaborate with local, state, and federal law enforcement to punish those making money by selling such dangerous drugs.  The Attorney General’s Office can support the prosecution of drug dealers by assisting rural counties in investigating, prosecuting, and preventing the manufacturing, trafficking, and distribution of opioids.  Finally, we need to oversee the opioid supply chain, ensuring that excess amounts of opioids are not allowed to be diverted to illegal uses.

Moving to a Public Health Model

For those who are using and addicted to opioids, the essence of a public health mindset is to evaluate how to approach opioid users with an eye toward providing treatment opportunities, not a jail sentence.  Under the Governmental Entrepreneurial Leadership Accelerator program I founded, a team developed a model for reaching out to opioid users who congregate in the Denver Public Library.   This team, which had two law enforcement officials on it, developed a strategy for pairing a police officer with a mental health professional.  Similarly, the Longmont Department of Public Safety now supports the Police-Assisted Addiction Recovery Initiative, which connects low-level offenders with law enforcement officers specially trained to help them obtain treatment.

A number of communities in Colorado have developed drug courts, enabling those abusing opioids to get the help they need rather than face a prison sentence.  As Attorney General, I will work with leaders around the State—including our District Attorneys, County Sheriffs, public health officials, and mental health professionals to encourage diversion efforts to drug treatment as opposed to criminal sentences wherever possible.  I will also seek to bring drug treatment and mental health services to jails and prisons for those who present a threat to society or have committed serious crimes and need treatment.

Providing Support for Drug Treatment

As our next Attorney General, I will support drug treatment through a multi-faceted approach, in addition to obtaining money from successful suits against pharmaceutical companies. I will work to protect the Affordable Care Act, which provides some Medicaid-funded treatment options for people who are dependent on opioids.  I will also work to strengthen Medicaid, providing more support for those in drug treatment.  I will take steps to make sure that insurance companies support drug treatment, and I will ensure that they do not defy federal laws that require them to provide parity in access to life-saving substance abuse treatment.

* * *

Few issues involve the trauma and raw emotion of the opioid epidemic.  In many groups I speak with, a large number of those in the room are directly affected by this crisis, with family members’ dependent on opioids or a casualty of an overdose.  We need our next Attorney General to make this issue a top priority, collaborating with leaders across our state to hold the pharmaceutical companies accountable for their part in this crisis, working effectively to punish drug dealers, and treating those dependent on opioids with a public health mindset.  That’s why creating and supporting drug treatment opportunities will be a central goal of my leadership on this issue.

Garrison Ortiz, Pueblo County Commissioner


“When I met Phil Weiser, I was impressed by his sincere interest in understanding the issues facing Pueblo and how he could work with us on important issues.  His commitment to addressing the opioid crisis is a powerful reason why we need him as our next Attorney General.  Phil’s commitment to working together to solve this issue and other ones facing our community is unique and comes from the heart.  That’s why I am supporting him to be our next Attorney General.“

Pueblo Chieftain, Colorado faces crisis in opioid epidemic, Op-Ed by Phil Weiser

Shares 0
Tags :