"Problematic" use of opioid settlement money opposed by coalition of public health organizations

Public health groups criticize spending opioid settlement funds on police, criminalization and incarceration

Published August 16, 2023 6:51PM (EDT)

 (Getty/Stuart Ritchie)
(Getty/Stuart Ritchie)

After years of litigation against pharmaceutical companies and manufacturers, money is starting to be distributed to communities affected by the opioid overdose crisis following reached settlements. But a coalition of more than 130 public health groups claims the way in which some states are using the funds is "problematic."

"Secured through the suffering of people who use drugs and their loved ones, these funds should be used to help individuals directly impacted by the failed 'War on Drugs,'" according to a brief from 133 public health organizations, including the Drug Policy Alliance and AIDS United. "Sadly, in many places, people are not seeing opioid settlement dollars put toward things that would actually improve their lives." 

The settlements, which some estimate will amount to at least $50 billion distributed over the next 18 years, require recipients to dedicate at least 85% of funds to "abate the opioid epidemic." Some communities in Rhode Island and Michigan, for example, are using the money to fund an overdose prevention center and a program designed to keep families together. But one program in Louisiana is allocating 20% of funds to sheriffs, while a county in Wyoming will use $750,000 for a new police cruiser and another in New York is using some of their funds to pay for overtime expenses for law enforcement personnel conducting narcotics investigations.

Public health groups say these funds should instead be prioritized for harm reduction, housing and local community organizations that address the "collateral consequences of drug war policies." Coalitions of addiction medicine specialists and other research organizations have also published guidance on how to spend the funds, recommending prioritization of harm reduction. Christine Minhee, a lawyer who runs the Opioid Settlement Tracker, told The New York Times it is clear that "between the lines" of the settlements local politics will be in charge of enforcing the settlement agreements rather than the court.

"This means that the task of enforcing the spirit of the agreement — making sure that settlements are spent in ways that maximize lives saved — is left to the rest of us," she said.

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