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Colorado attorney general plots path forward in opioid crisis during Durango visit

Law enforcement, health professions hold workshop to discuss funding and programming options
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser speaks Wednesday during an opioid workshop at the Fort Lewis College Center for Innovation in downtown Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The opioid epidemic has plunged Colorado into a deep hole of trauma, suffering and loss. The United States has grappled with the 25-year crisis like no other nation in the world, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said this week at an opioid workshop in Durango.

At the Fort Lewis College Center for Innovation on the second floor of the Main Mall, Weiser said before a panel of law enforcement, justice system and health professionals that his heart bleeds for the people and families affected by the crisis.

“My blood boils when I think about part of this,” Weiser said. “... So what happened?”

The attorney general, who is running for re-election in 2022, said it started with pills. Seventy percent to 80% of those using heroin somehow got ahold of prescription pills in the past, he said.

Weiser said Oct. 23 is just one of two National Drug Take Back Days. He said the nation should probably have more than just two days of acknowledgment for prescription pills “because when any of us have those pills in our medicine cabinet, they are sitting there waiting for our kids or family members to take them as a party drug or getting high, or whatever they’re thinking what may happen.”

The objective of the opioid meeting was for local leaders to gain an understanding about the barriers La Plata, Montezuma, Dolores, Archuleta and San Juan counties must overcome to successfully address the opioid crisis that has snowballed nationwide over the past 25 years.

The panel featured local and regional officials, including La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith and Montezuma County Sheriff Steven Nowlin, 22nd Judicial District Attorney Matthew Margeson, 6th Judicial District Attorney Christian Champagne and 6th Judicial District Judge Suzanne Carlson. Also on the panel were Molly Rodriguez with La Plata County, the clinical manager for the Axis ATU and Community Policing Programs.

Weiser said La Plata and Montezuma counties have low populations compared with others in Colorado, which means they receive less funding for opioid treatments.

“You’re incredibly scrappy, collaborative and committed,” Weiser said. “So I’m here to bet on you and with you to make this path forward work.”

Ensuring Ute tribes have a seat at the table

The attorney general said the Ute Mountain Ute and the Southern Ute tribes are vital to solving the opioid puzzle in Southwest Colorado. He urged the tribes to be involved with the regional panel’s governance model as partners, lest local efforts to combat the opioid crisis don’t work as intended.

The tribes will receive a 10% share of state funding for combating opioid addiction, which is comparable to the funding that local governments will receive, Weiser said. That money can be used as part of what Weiser called the regional panel’s “bottom-up effort” to address opioid addiction.

“You are the only region in the state who has tribal members, and so as you think about your governance, my plea is to think about them and work with them so that they are included,” Weiser said.

A culturally sensitive and competent approach to involving the Ute tribes is needed, Weiser said, referencing the trauma, suffering and addiction the tribes have borne.

“How we embrace and learn from that and work together is going to be important on multiple levels,” he said.

Challenges presented by the opioid crisis

Local governments, law enforcement and health professionals each face obstacles in the fight against opioid addiction.

For example, law enforcement is missing leverage over drug offenders as a result of Colorado voters’ decision to reclassify many drug crimes as misdemeanors as opposed to felonies. Medicaid members who test positive for opiates such as fentanyl must meet eligibility and necessity criteria for treatment.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser speaks Wednesday during an opioid workshop at the Fort Lewis College Center for Innovation in downtown Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Weiser said a bottom-up approach is needed to address region-specific issues because a solution for one area might not be what is most needed for another.

The attorney general divided challenges into three categories: that of demand, supply and law enforcement.

On the demand side, Weiser asked the panel how members can destigmatize the conversation about fentanyl. How can people be made to feel it is OK to talk about their addiction problems? He said when someone admits to and opens up about having an addiction, that conversation can save their life.

Weiser said work has been done on the supply side; physicians and doctors have been told they can’t prescribe opiate painkillers as frequently as they used to.

On the law enforcement side, proper responses to drug addiction are crucial to helping addicts get better. He provided a couple of anecdotes, one involving Pueblo jails where a problem persists and another involving a substance abuse treatment center in Larimer County.

In Pueblo, despite jail staff members’ work to provide medication and assistance to addicts when they are in jail, many people who are released go right back to using substances, committing crimes and ultimately ending up back behind bars, he said.

Then he told a story about a person in Larimer County who went home high on drugs. The person didn’t make it home and woke up to find police standing there. In an altered state, the person went into the wrong house and fell asleep. A judge told the person, “‘You have a serious problem, and if you don’t address it, your future is in jeopardy,” Weiser said.

Instead of placing the person in jail, the judge sent the person to a Larimer County substance abuse treatment center. Weiser said the person was successfully treated.

cburney@durangoherald.com

An earlier version of this story erred in saying Colorado Medicaid will not pay for treatment of drug abusers who test positive for opiates. Medicaid members who test positive for opiates can qualify for substance use disorder under the state Medicaid program under certain conditions. Incorrect information was provided to the Herald.

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