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Op-Ed: Any Opioid Settlement Funds Should go to Survivors of the Epidemic

The following op-ed is written by Marcus Jackson, organizing coordinator, on behalf of ACLU-KY Smart Justice Advocates

The opioid crisis continues to ravage Kentucky and other states throughout the country, and many states attorneys general have taken legal action against drug manufacturers and pharmacies that knowingly fueled this epidemic in the name of corporate earnings. The recent announcement by Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron to hold CVS Pharmacy accountable for its role in the state’s opioid epidemic is commendable.

As many Kentucky families know too well, nearly 5,000 Kentuckians have died from drug overdoses since 2017. Most involved an opioid. Just as opioid related overdoses began to trend down starting in 2018, the coronavirus pandemic isolated people in recovery and made matters worse. This epidemic cuts across age, race, gender, and geography. Last year, an average of 1.8 people died every day in Jefferson County, and Estill County suffered nearly double the per capita death rate with 80.99 deaths per capita.

Sadly, these deaths were not entirely accidental. Rather, they were the direct result of unscrupulous and profit-driven pharmaceutical companies, their consulting firms, and pharmacy dispensers. These companies put profit over life by knowingly and deceptively marketing addictive drugs to doctors, targeting the most vulnerable patients, circumventing pharmacy regulations, and willfully ignoring the exorbitant number of opioid pills being dispensed. 

The Attorney General’s lawsuit, like previous opioid litigation, will likely result in a multimillion-dollar settlement comparable to the $10.8 million dollar settlement announced earlier this year. Where and how this money should be allocated is an important question.

While addiction prevention, education, and drug enforcement activities have typically received funding, we believe the conversation about how and where to spend settlement funds has overlooked a vital demographic: the survivors of the opioid epidemic.

Survivors of the opioid epidemic include individuals in long-term recovery, many of whom have interacted with the criminal legal system. These individuals were targeted, manipulated, addicted, and incarcerated. They overcame the odds and fought their way out of the darkness and back to the light. Any settlement funds should be directed toward services and programs to help these Kentuckians maintain their sobriety and fully reenter their communities. It the fair and just action because they were directly targeted by pharmaceutical companies and have suffered the most.

We are calling on Governor Beshear and the General Assembly to earmark the entirety of any opioid settlement proceeds for programs and services supporting survivors of the opioid epidemic. 

Here is what we suggest:

  1. Treatment, not incarceration: The failed war on drugs has targeted our neighbors, friends, and family and entirely ignored the root cause of the problem: the disease known as substance use disorder. It has been proven time and again that we cannot incarcerate our way out of this epidemic. We should continue to fund community recovery centers rather than law enforcement activity that put lives in even more danger and adds to our overcrowded jails.

  2. Reentry programs:  Many of the survivors of the opioid epidemic have been incarcerated. Criminal records have consequences that can last for decades, hindering employment, housing access, and more. This lack of opportunity increases the likelihood a person will not fully recover and may wind up back in criminal legal system. These Kentuckians need support to get back on their feet to fully rejoin their communities and families:

    1. Liberation Identification: this campaign asks the state to provide a state-issued photo ID to all people upon release so they can immediately seek employment, housing, healthcare, and more.

    2. Advisory Council for Recovery Ready Communities: adequately fund and support the advisory board created in the 2021 legislative session so all counties have the knowledge and resources to support their communities. KEES Scholarship: allow people with convictions to access Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship funds so they may pursue a college degree or vocational training. (Legislation to do this passed the House of Representatives in 2020.) Housing Vouchers: provide direct assistance to those with substance use disorder who are seeking housing directly out of jail or a treatment facility.

    3. “Second-Chance” Renter Program: create incentives for landlords to rent to formerly incarcerated individuals and those with a history of substance use disorder.

    4. Transportation Vouchers: provide public transit assistance for those with substance use disorder who have recently been released from a jail or a treatment facility.

To truly overcome the devastating and long-lasting consequences of the opioid epidemic, we must invest in people and their sustained recovery so they may fully and successfully reenter society and meet their full potential as fellow Kentuckians.