Combating the opioid epidemic
Since joining the Attorney General’s Office, I am often asked, “if you could accomplish one goal, what would it be?” My answer is invariably the same—to address the opioid epidemic. To that end, our office has a number of tools to use to take on this challenge.
October 26th is “National Prescription Drug Take Back Day” and we’re getting the word out how people can return for safe disposal prescription drugs that are no longer needed for their prescribed use. According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 9.9 million Americans misused prescription drugs and a majority of abused prescription drugs were obtained from home medicine cabinets. Indeed, my family had its own experience with taking back prescription drugs when I received a two-month supply of OxyContin after I broke my ribs. I did not ask for the drugs, and I did not use them. Had my wife (a doctor) not taken them back for safe disposal, those drugs would be in our medicine cabinet at risk that our kids (or someone else) might take them. National Prescription Drug Take Back Day is a wake-up call to those like me, who did not appreciate the danger of keeping such drugs around. For more information, and to find a drop-off location, please visit takebackday.dea.gov.
The path toward dependence on, and abuse of, opioids varies widely. At the Substance Abuse Trend and Response Task Force, which the Office of the Attorney General chairs, we hear a lot about these challenges. At the last meeting, we heard from a mother grieving the loss of her son. Her son apparently became addicted to prescription pills and, when he could no longer receive them from a doctor, he purchased them on the black market. What he purchased, however, was not OxyContin (even though it looked like it); it was fentanyl, a highly powerful and more potent painkiller. The dose he took was enough to kill him.
From 1999 until 2018, overdose deaths from drugs (mostly opioids) rose in the U.S. by staggering numbers. More people died from drug overdoses in both 2016 and 2017 than U.S. military casualties in the Vietnam and Iraq Wars combined. In 2018, for the first time, the number of drug overdoses in the U.S. fell slightly from the prior year. This crisis has caused massive damage to our nation, and to communities across Colorado. It is not going to be easy to end this crisis, but I am committed to using every tool we can.
As I often tout, the Opioid Unit in the Department of Law is doing terrific work investigating and fighting to hold responsible those who contributed to this crisis. Much of the crisis was the result of drug company marketing campaigns encouraging the use of opioids—suggesting that they were not addictive—while knowing that they were highly addictive. In refusing to accept a settlement with Purdue Pharma and members of the Sackler family (who owns the company, and whom the State sued individually), we have insisted that the Sackler family be held accountable and make an appropriate financial contribution to any settlement, and we are playing a leading role in a multi-state initiative. At the same time as we are pursuing this resolution, we are working with other states to address the actions of others, and very encouraged by the announcement of a $48 billion settlement framework (including cash, products, and services) with a number of major drug and distribution companies.
Our work to identify and hold accountable those whose wrongful actions contributed to the crisis will continue. Our office—led by an Opioid Strategy Director—will continue to develop and implement plans to ensure that those funds support education/prevention, treatment, and recovery programs. We will continue working with state partners to address abusive overprescribing, including our work overseeing doctors, pharmacists, and others who prescribe opioids. Similarly, we also work with our law enforcement partners on drug interdiction efforts as well as providing diversion programs (for drug treatment) for people addicted to opioids and in the criminal justice system.
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Many people around the state have been personally affected by the opioid crisis. Over the last couple of decades, we have lost so much in our state and our nation. What we can do now is look for every opportunity to address this crisis. As the Attorney General’s office carries out this work, including by spreading the word about “National Take Back Day,” we are doing our part to serve the people of Colorado.