February 29, 2024

Opioid settlement funds shouldn’t bolster Kansas law enforcement budgets

KMUW reported last month that “Opioid settlement money is meant to fight addiction, but Kansas gives a lot of it to police.”

This is harmful.

The story explained: “The money is part of national legal settlements against prescription opioid makers, distributors and pharmacies. The state of Kansas expects to receive more than $340 million over the next 18 years.”

It’s unfortunate that law enforcement programs receive money over chronically underfunded community-based organizations doing boots-on-the-ground prevention and harm reduction. This disbursement also goes against the recommendations of leading public health researchers, scientists, and clinicians, including those who wrote a Call to Action on Opioid Settlement Funds.

In Kansas, synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, were responsible for 56% of the state’s 738 drug overdose deaths in 2022, a significant increase from fewer than 10% of the 326 overdose deaths in 2017. Safe Streets Wichita has been integral in increasing the community’s access to free harm reduction kits that include naloxone and fentanyl test strips to combat the opioid epidemic.

From January to August 2023, my group distributed 6,733 naloxone kits and 5,826 test strip kits throughout Wichita, thanks to funding from the city of Wichita, grants and individual donations. These kits were distributed in “hot spots,” or areas of increased drug overdoses, which accounted for 86% of the total distribution. It has been reported that approximately 7% of the naloxone or FTS kits have been used, but this figure is likely underestimated.

These kits have potentially saved more than 860 lives, proving that evidence-based interventions reduce substance-related harm and connect individuals with necessary care.

In 2021, the Kansas Fights Addiction Act, a Kansas law, created a board that decides where the opioid settlement money goes. That board, the Kansas Fights Addiction Act Grant Review Board, is appointed by Attorney General Kris Kobach and other elected officials. The act created a plan for the use of opioid settlement funds for substance misuse and addiction prevention, reduction, treatment, and mitigation. The board also selected a local philanthropy to administer the grant program to disburse funds. Ten million dollars were allocated for prevention and treatment programs.

However, law enforcement agencies still received hundreds of thousands of dollars.

From January to August 2023, my group distributed 6,733 naloxone kits and 5,826 test strip kits throughout Wichita, thanks to funding from the city of Wichita, grants and individual donations.

– Aonya Kendrick Barnett

Settlement funds should not be used to bolster law enforcement agencies’ budgets. Abatement money is meant to prioritize populations most harmed by the opioid and overdose crisis and for investments into interventions proven to lessen those harms. How much more evidence do we need to inform better decision-making? Whether intentional or not, disbursement to law enforcement has a negative impact and goes against the values of good stewardship.

Changing the approach to substance misuse from punitive measures to proactive prevention solutions can work towards reducing overdose rates and improving overall public health. Kansas can now implement a new roadmap of equitable best practices, principles, and pillars proven to reduce harm and increase the likelihood of recovery and treatment.

Those of us doing community care and public health work, who often face challenges because of a lack of funding and resources, cannot stand idly by this injustice. Our communities should not allow opioid litigation funds to be seen as a cash cow.

We’ve witnessed enforcement responses over the past 50 years and know the current criminalization-led approach does not work. Law enforcement officials are not fully equipped to handle this crisis’s responsibilities. They have repeatedly stated, “We cannot arrest our way out of this crisis.”

They have expressed frustration with the overburdened system’s lack of resources, infrastructure, and gaps. It seems apparent that these dollars could be better used elsewhere.

Law enforcement officials should receive the training, resources, and supplies to respond to the drug crisis effectively. But they are enforcement specialists, not prevention specialists.

Our coalition prides itself on cross-sector collaboration and has previously worked with law enforcement. Thanks to Safe Streets Wichita’s coalition’s efforts, more police and first responders are equipped to carry naloxone.

However, allowing law enforcement, with ever-increasing budgets that far exceed most nonprofits and community groups, to siphon these proceeds from the intended recipients is an imbalanced distribution of resources.

As a leader and advocate in public health, I want us to rethink the role of law enforcement in prevention science and within communities that their presence has historically harmed. Allow communities to reimagine public safety for people who are often and unjustly over-surveilled, pushed to the margins, and experienced fractured relationships with police. Putting theory into action is challenging when addressing social determinants of health, but we must ensure our approaches align with the scientific evidence and principles behind the framework.

Community groups and law enforcement both play a role in prevention. Law enforcement agencies should be responsible for using their budgets to support prevention efforts and providing essential supplies such as naloxone to officers, just as community groups use their budgets to supply their communities with resources.

Safe Streets Wichita’s research-based recommendations for the opioid settlement include:

  • Fund community-based programs for people who use drugs (low-barrier access to naloxone, syringe service programs, overdose prevention centers and drug-checking tools such as fentanyl test strips)
  • Support HB 2487, a Good Samaritan Overdose Protection Law that provides immunities or other legal protections for people who call for help in the event of an overdose.
  • Fund medication for substance use disorders. It is crucial to make special efforts to ensure that medications for treatment are readily accessible to pregnant individuals who may face additional stigma and barriers to care. Similarly, it is essential to extend accessibility to individuals who are incarcerated, as their overdose rates upon release are often significantly higher than the general public.
  • Ensure equitable representation on the Kansas Fights Addiction review board. To effectively save lives, the review board should ensure equitable representation and consider perspectives from different communities.
  • Implement evidence-based practices for underserved populations. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has outlined such practices for underserved populations, particularly those who use drugs. Culturally relevant interventions that are community-oriented and based on evidence are essential.

Aonya Kendrick Barnett specializes in substance use prevention and coalition building. She leads Safe Streets Wichita. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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