Giving out clean needles to drug users ‘enabling,’ Garfield County commissioner says
Local governance committee currently pitching ideas on what to do with major opioid settlement funds
EDITOR’S NOTE: Comments from High Rockies Harm Reduction Founder and Executive Director Maggie Seldeen were added to this story on Tuesday.
Major funding from national opioid settlements with CVS and Walgreens is coming to Garfield County. One proposal is to direct part of the funds toward providing clean syringes and the overdose prevention drug Naloxone locally.
Garfield County Public Health Specialist Mason Hohstadt outlined this proposal and two others — using settlement funds to also create public education campaigns and creating an opioid data dashboard — to county commissioners on Monday.
Hohstadt’s presentation initially ignited concern from Commissioners Tom Jankovsky and Mike Samson, while Chair John Martin chose not to offer any opinions.
“I guess I would potentially call that enabling,” Jankovsky said of harm reduction efforts like promoting needle exchange programs.
“You don’t think harm reduction encourages the use of opioids? That’s a question that’s out there.”
Colorado is earmarked to receive more than $700 million in national opioid settlement funds over the next 18 years. This includes $40 million the state secured from Walmart over its role in the opioid epidemic.
In 2021, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser started the Colorado Opioid Abatement Council, which divides the state into regions to receive settlement funds. Lake, Summit, Eagle, Pitkin and Garfield counties make up Region 5.
Region 5 should receive an average of $280,000 annually from settlements, Hohstadt said, while Garfield County itself should receive about $40,000 per year.
One major local development in response to the opioid crisis is the ongoing creation of a detoxification facility in Glenwood Springs, which officials now refer to as a “withdrawal management program.” Jankovsky previously proposed directing opioid funds toward the facility, which is to be operated by Mind Springs Health.
“I think most of Garfield County has committed their dollars to the detox (center),” he said.
The most recent numbers offered from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) show Garfield County leading most rural Colorado areas in overdose deaths. Twenty-four people died from overdose-related causes in the county between 2020-2021. With the combination of all counties representing Region 5, 59 people have died of drug overdoses in this same timeframe.
Eagle County Public Health Partnership Strategist and Region 5 Rep. Chelsea Carnoali told commissioners on Monday that anyone taking advantage of harm reduction services are “already using.”
“Those needle exchange services, or Naloxone distribution or the fentanyl test strips, that is preventing overdose,” she said. “And that is preventing some viral concerns — of course, everything we know (about) using dirty needles.
“These folks are already at that point.”
Hepatitis C and Human immunodeficiency viruses (HIV) are the two most damaging, communicable diseases stemming from intravenous drug use. Hepatitis C cases specifically among Colorado’s prison inmate population became so bad in 2018, the Colorado Department of Corrections committed $41 million over two years to treat inmates living with chronic HVC, CDPHE documents state.
“I don’t want to kick somebody that’s having problems, but you make bad choices and then society pays for it, right?,” Samson said, showing slight opposition to socially treating opioid users. “That’s where we’re at in a lot of ways.”
Police in Garfield County itself have documented instances when the overdose drug brand NARCAN was deployed and successfully saved people from overdosing. In spring 2021, two people in Rifle were administered naloxone and ultimately saved by the Rifle Police Department and Colorado River Fire Rescue district.
When it comes to locally obtaining overdose-prevention drugs and clean needles without police assistance, people go to High Rockies Harm Reduction. But this nonprofit, run by founder and Executive Director Maggie Seldeen, is limited on funding and its services were temporarily suspended in 2022. Services will kick in again 4-6 p.m. at The Meeting Place in Carbondale, 981 Cowen Drive. High Rockies Harm Reduction will now run every third Thursday of the month in 2023.
Seldeen herself was an injection drug user who also lost her mother to an overdose in 2006. She said on Tuesday harm reduction programs are proven to mitigate the spread of disease and that the Garfield County commissioners “are not health experts.”
“That ‘enabling attitude’ is basically saying it’s a moral failing of an individual with addiction,” she said. “That’s not how we treat addiction.”
“While this continues to be a small-scale anomaly in the Valley, it obviously still happens.”
Hohstadt said that Region 5 has drafted a two-year plan for the first part of the settlement funds, and that a request for proposal to develop things like harm reduction programs and educational campaigns is now open.
Carnoali is accepting questions about the RFP, at email@example.com, until 4 p.m. Feb. 17. Proposals are being taken at this same address until 4 p.m. March 10.
Post Independent western Garfield County reporter and Assistant Editor Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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