States mull using opioid settlement funds for cops rather than helping addicts
States are considering using cash from opioid settlements to bolster their police forces. It's a blatant misuse of funds that is a slap in the face to the addicts victimized by Big Pharma.
With tens of billions of dollars set to be deposited into states’ coffers from opioid settlements over the next two decades, the potential for sweeping reforms is endless.
State legislatures could vastly improve their health care systems and create more resources for addicts. They could invest in medications to treat addiction. They could also exponentially increase access to education and housing, bettering the quality of life for those in need.
Or, using the money they receive from lawsuits against corporations that fed the opioid epidemic, they could further empower the police state.
The latter is now unfortunately the case in states such as Michigan, Alabama, Ohio and Louisiana, NPR reported on Friday, highlighting an investigation by KFF Health News.
States are expected to receive more than $50 billion through opioid-related settlements with pharmaceutical companies over the next 18 years.
While the stipulations of the settlements differ in some cases, state and local governments in most cases must use 85% of the funds for “opioid remediation.”
The catch, however, is that some argue that funneling more money into police departments falls into that definition.
Shawn Bain, a retired captain of the Franklin County, Ohio, sheriff's office, claimed that allocating the money to police departments would help, not hurt, their communities, NPR reported.
"People need to look beyond, 'Oh, it's just a vest or it's just a squad car,' because those tools could impact and reduce drugs in their communities," Bain said. "That cruiser could very well stop the next guy with five kilos of cocaine," and a vest "could save an officer's life on the next drug raid."
Other states have already begun using their share of settlement funds for similar purposes.
In Michigan, for example, at least half a dozen sheriff departments have discussed buying body scanners for jails with opioid settlement funds. At least two counties in the state have already approved purchases of the scanners, which they argue will help combat drug smuggling in the prison system.
An Alabama county used the settlement money to purchase police vehicles that officials say will help transport those who are suicidal or in severe withdrawal.
In Louisiana, there is also support for using funds for police, and sheriffs there are exempt from even accounting for how they spend the funds under the state’s settlement agreement.
In addition to the potential lack of transparency, it’s hard to believe police departments, which already have bloated budgets funded by taxpayers, are asking for the additional funds for altruistic purposes.
“More policing is not the answer to the overdose crisis,” a group of more than 200 researchers and clinicians correctly stated in an open letter in August, published by the nonprofit The Open Society Policy Center.
“Law enforcement may undermine public health programs, for example by confiscating sterile drug use equipment and naloxone, thereby putting people at greater risk of infectious diseases and overdose.” they wrote. “Fear of arrest thwarts people’s willingness to call 911 in overdose emergencies. Moreover, there is a growing body of evidence that law enforcement operations, such as drug seizures, can result in increased overdose.”
The warnings come as the opioid epidemic rages on with no signs of letting up.
What began for many as a prescription for painkillers has turned into the use of fentanyl, a deadly synthetic opioid up to 50 times stronger than heroin. Other variants are even more potent.
An estimated 110,000 people died last year of drug overdoses in the U.S., the New York Times has reported.
Synthetic opioids could be attributed to about 75,000 of those overdose deaths.
It is unclear whether Maryland is also considering using the funds from settlements to bolster its police forces. The state is, however, still sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars.
Maryland is slated to receive more than $12 million over the next four years from a settlement with McKinsey & Company. It will also receive nearly $400 million over the next 18 years through a settlement with Johnson & Johnson and its U.S.-based Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies.
Unfortunately, Baltimore, the epicenter of drug addiction in the state, will not receive a penny. The city instead opted out of the settlements in an attempt to separately pursue litigation.
While a trial is set for next year, that decision could prove disastrous if city-sponsored lawsuits aren’t successful.
Although the Baltimore City Health Department’s overdose data is outdated, the impact of the opioid epidemic on its residents is clear.
Baltimore comprises about 10% of Maryland's population, yet more than 35% of statewide overdose deaths occurred in Baltimore in 2020, according to the health department’s most recent data.
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That’s why, if the funds are used properly, there is no doubt that the possibilities stemming from settlements with opioid manufacturers are endless. They provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for record investments in health outcomes across the country.
However, allocating the money to police, who have only augmented the opioid epidemic by arresting and imprisoning addicts rather than helping them, is a massive mistake.
As a direct victim of the greed of opioid manufacturers, addicts don’t need more aggressive policing. They need better health care to maximize their treatment options. They need better access to rehabilitation and medication.
Perhaps most importantly, they need to know that the government wants to help them, not increase their chances of being thrown in prison.
States are experiencing a unique opportunity to aid those in need, thanks to unprecedented amounts of money that came from a proclaimed desire to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable for the opioid epidemic.
Now it’s up to them to prove those efforts were indeed on behalf of the individuals whose lives have been upended due to substance use disorder.
With the rewards from opioid-related settlements now coming to fruition, the coming years will show where their priorities actually lie.