Funding for cops stokes debate over use of opioid settlement money
As states and localities collect the first billions in opioid settlement funds, there's mounting concern over how some of the money is headed to law enforcement and plugging budget gaps instead of public health needs.
The big picture: At least 70% of the money has to be directed to opioid-related expenses, but critics fear limited transparency over the way it's being allocated risks crowding out the most pressing priorities and repeating the largely failed tactics of the war on drugs.
- For some, it's turning into a money grab reminiscent of the 1998 tobacco settlement — the biggest civil settlement in U.S. history.
Driving the news: More than 130 addiction medicine specialists, outreach groups and other organizations last week released a roadmap for settlement funds that opposes spending on law enforcement personnel, overtime or equipment and approaches encouraging criminalization or incarceration.
- Priorities should be medication-assisted treatment, syringe services programs, housing for people who use drugs or have drug-related convictions and other support services, the groups argued.
- They're also calling for more transparency in how the money is being distributed and for greater public input from people who have lived with addiction.
- Only 12 states have promised in-depth reporting of their opioid settlement spending, per a KFF Health News investigation.
State of play: Some of the more than $3 billion of settlement funds that's been distributed since last year — of over $50 billion to be doled out over the next 18 years — was directed to recovery and peer support, housing and mobile methadone units and increased access to fentanyl strips.
- But it's also been allocated to a new police car in West Virginia, hacking equipment for law enforcement to find drug dealers in Colorado and overtime for narcotics investigators in New York.
- In Louisiana, governments are required to set aside 20% of their settlement funds to sheriffs. A Tennessee county put millions toward paying off its debt.
- Pennsylvania is debating using $275,000 in settlement funds for its existing drug task force to help officers with arrests.
What they're saying: Law enforcement has a role in the opioid epidemic, but with a finite amount of funds, the money should instead focus on services and care for people impacted by addiction, said Shameka Parrish-Wright, executive director of Vocal-KY, a community organization that contributed to the spending roadmap.
- Parrish-Wright, who was formerly incarcerated and had parents with an addiction to drugs, told Axios that "we know that jails and prisons can never solve all of our issues. We cannot just lock them up and throw away the key."
Go deeper: Spending settlement funds on police rekindles the heated debate over treatment versus enforcement in dealing with drug misuse.
- A growing body of research has found that imprisonment has exacerbated the nation's drug problems without reducing overdose deaths.
- A recent study in the American Journal of Public Health found that fatal overdoses doubled following police drug busts in an Indianapolis neighborhood, possibly because people using drugs turned to suppliers lacing substances with higher doses of fentanyl or including xylazine.
- State and federal lawmakers are responding to drug threat with legislation that would invoke harsher penalties for selling or distributing fentanyl, drawing pushback from public health experts and criminal justice advocates.
- 31 states plus Washington, D.C., have drug-induced homicide laws, which charges people with manslaughter if they provide drugs to someone who fatally overdoses, according to the Legislative Analysis and Public Policy Association.
The other side: Limited treatment options for people with opioid use disorder have turned police into de facto emergency responders, similar to the way courts and jails are providing mental health treatment.
- That's placed a "tremendous burden on our police officers," especially amid officer shortages, said Sam Sanguedolce, district attorney in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, during a November county council budget meeting.
- Sanguedolce asked the council to use settlement dollars to fund an additional prison for incarcerated people with medical issues and hire more detectives to work opioid cases, which he said could help divert more people to resources instead of prison.
- This request would also include money for vehicles and guns, vests and computers.
- "If I had 10 more detectives, I could arrest for those [opioid-related] cases round the clock ... without putting it on the taxpayers," Sanguedolce said.
- The county as of last month hasn't decided how to spend settlement funds, per local reports.
The bottom line: "We're going to hold states accountable," said Elizabeth Burke Beaty, CEO of the National Sea Change Coalition, a nonprofit focused on destigmatizing substance use and recovery support.
- "If they're just going to perpetuate 'Let's arrest our way out of this,' then we're going to keep fighting the good fight."