Opioid settlement money is meant to fight addiction. Kansas gives a lot of it to police | KCUR

As millions of dollars flow into the state of Kansas from opioid settlement funds, local and statewide groups are vying for that money to address the growing opioid crisis in their communities.

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.

In the Kansas Fights Addiction Act, which created a board to decide where the money goes, the use of the funds are outlined for prevention, reduction, treatment and mitigation of the effects of substance misuse and addiction.

This year, the KFA board – through the Kansas Attorney General’s office – allocated $10 million for prevention and treatment programs.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars went to state and local law enforcement agencies despite increasing calls nationally against law enforcement receiving those funds.

“Law enforcement by the nature of what they do, got to always be at the forefront,” KFA Board Chair Pat George said.

“So we’d rather work with them and try to … like we will with everyone involved here, steer them in a direction that’s scientifically proven to be more helpful to curbing the tide.”

A recent letter from the Open Society Policy Center outlines several ways settlement funds should be spent. It also advises where money should not be spent – including law enforcement efforts that advocates say haven’t worked for decades.

“More policing is not the answer to the overdose crisis,” the letter reads. “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.”

The Kansas Bureau of Investigation received $110,000 in settlement money to expand its joint fentanyl impact team. The KBI is overseen by the attorney general’s office, led by Kris Kobach.

The team, which includes the Kansas Highway Patrol, targets people in the illicit drug market.

The Highway Patrol received about $186,000 to buy fingerprint readers and TruNarc Devices, which law enforcement says helps identify substances during investigations. The devices cost almost $25,000 a piece.

The two agencies are among several Kansas law enforcement organizations that received settlement funds meant to abate the ongoing opioid crisis.

“I would say the law enforcement piece was probably one of the biggest conversations the board had about whether or not and how to award funds properly,” Kansas Assistant Attorney General Chris Teters said.

“One of the things the statute requires is that we consider science and data driven approaches to make certain that there’s actually evidence-backed approaches to how these funds are being distributed because we can’t just continue to do the same things that we’ve done and hope for different results.”

While the attorney general’s office said it’s considering evidence-backed approaches to addressing the opioid crisis, academics and researchers across the nation have advised boards – like Kansas Fights Addiction Board – to not award money to law enforcement agencies.

Jennifer Carroll with North Carolina State University – who signed the Open Society letter – researches how drug interdiction efforts impact people who use drugs.

“We found that opioid overdoses doubled … within a few hundred meters of where seizures happened in a couple of weeks after they happened,” Carroll said.

The study showed that after law enforcement made drug busts in Indianapolis, overdoses sharply rose in the area immediately surrounding where the seizure was made. People whose supply of drugs was interrupted sought out other drugs that often had a different potency, resulting in an overdose.

Carroll said expensive devices like the TruNarc that the Highway Patrol utilizes are ineffective at identifying substances and preventing the state’s rise in overdoses.

“It will be news to me if anything produced through a TruNarc device is admissible in court or an investigation,” she said.

Harm reduction efforts

Part of the state’s opioid settlement funds, about $4 million, went to dozens of community organizations for prevention efforts, which include expanding access to naloxone in the state.

Angela Scott (left) and Aonya Kendrick Barnett (right) hand out naloxone kits to people in the area of 3rd and Topeka near downtown Wichita in early 2023.

Angela Scott (left) and Aonya Barnett (right) hand out naloxone kits to people in the area of 3rd and Topeka near downtown Wichita.

Safe Streets, a coalition focused on preventing drug-related harms based in Wichita, applied for the state settlement funds.

While the group continues distributing naloxone, fentanyl test strips, and other resources to community members for free, it was denied funds.

“I don’t see law enforcement mitigating harms,” Executive Director Aonya Kendrick Barnett said. “The research shows us that law enforcement in a lot of instances, really exaggerate the harm, and we really need to be responding in a public health – not a carceral – but a public health way.”

Instead, $195,000 of settlement funds for prevention went to the Overland Park Police Department for a van and equipment to distribute naloxone, fentanyl test strips and other items.

Carroll said her research, and her own efforts in harm reduction, showed people don’t trust law enforcement as much as groups like Safe Streets to get resources into their communities.

“[Coalitions] are way better, like light years better, than everyone else at getting naloxone into the hands of people most likely to use it,” Carroll said.

“They are way better than anyone else at getting fentanyl test strips and drug checking equipment into the hands of people who will use it. They are way better than anyone else at referring people to treatment.”

As the settlement funds continue to be distributed across the state, Kendrick Barnett of Safe Streets said she’d like to see more money go toward coalitions like hers.

“It’s not just about the dollars and cents. It’s about people’s lives. We lost so many lives during the opioid and the overdose epidemic,” she said.

“For that funding to go to enforcement is terrible stewardship of that money. And honestly, we should really be having a rally cry about it, we should be talking about it because the last thing we need is for our funding to be limited.”

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