Lancaster County has received its second allocation of opioid settlement funds, setting up a debate in coming weeks over how to use it — specifically, its potential use by the Lancaster County Drug Task Force.
On Wednesday, the county commissioners formally recognized the receipt of the allocation: $972,935.39. For the time being, it is being reserved in a dedicated escrow account in the county’s general fund, along with funds remaining from the initial 2022 disbursement of $644,846.
By the numbers
The proposed annual spending framework for Lancaster County’s opioid settlement:
Last year, a work group composed of stakeholders involved in addiction treatment and prevention developed a tentative spending framework. Assuming a typical yearly allocation of $900,000, it proposed funding six priority areas.
The second largest amount, $275,000, or just over 30%, would go toward the Drug Task Force for “preventing drug dealers from preying on our community.”
To date, allocations have been made of $300,000 for Pathways to Recovery, a court diversion program; and $125,060 for medication-assisted treatment, or MAT, at the County Prison. District Attorney Heather Adams is now working on a funding proposal for the Drug Task Force to bring before the commissioners, Solicitor Jackie Pfursich and district attorney spokesman Sean McBryan said.
As Spotlight PA reported earlier this year, the use of opioid settlement funds for drug enforcement is controversial. Treatment advocates say U.S. drug policy has focused too much on policing and that the settlements provide an opportunity for a long-overdue shift toward prevention, treatment and harm reduction.
That view is reflected in the policy guidance provided by the trust overseeing Pennsylvania’s opioid settlement funds. In an FAQ released in February, the trust said counties seeking to use the money for enforcement must seek its authorization first, Spotlight PA reported. The Commonwealth Court could also weigh in, if it chose.
The use of the money is also governed by “Exhibit E,” a “List of Opioid Remediation Uses” developed as part of the national settlement. Exhibit E does not cite enforcement as an approved purpose, but it states repeatedly that strategies “may include, but are not limited to” its suggestions.
While the county Drug Task Force engages in other activities, enforcement is its primary focus: Drug interdiction and the arrest of mid-level and high-level drug dealers.
On Wednesday, local advocate Gail Groves Scott called on the commissioners not to fund the task force, and to direct most if not all settlement money toward opioid harm reduction.
Scott, a former pharmaceutical salesperson turned whistleblower, is an independent addiction policy researcher. Every expert in the field, she said, puts harm reduction at the top of their public policy priority list.
Harm reduction refers to a suite of strategies such as counseling, medication-assisted treatment, deployment of overdose-reversal drugs such as naloxone and establishment of safe-injection sites and needle exchange programs.
Scott also urged the commissioners to rethink the membership of the work group, saying most participants work either for the county or for entities that receive county funding. The work group needs independent voices, she said, including front-line workers and individuals in recovery or still struggling with addiction.
“I know you can do better. … Look back and correct your course,” she said.
The commissioners said they appreciated Scott’s comments. Commissioners Josh Parsons and Ray D’Agostino both noted the county’s use of settlement funds to fund harm reduction via the County Prison’s MAT program.
Parsons is co-chair of Joining Forces, a countywide coalition of organizations battling the opioid epidemic. The work group largely drew its recommendations from the coalition’s strategic plan, he said, and Joining Forces’ membership includes “all kinds of people.”
Parsons pushed back strongly against the notion that enforcement isn’t a legitimate component of an overall strategy. If drug dealers don’t face consequences for their illegal activity, the drug problem will only proliferate, he said.
The Drug Task Force is a collaboration between county and local law enforcement. Municipalities are asked to contribute $1 per capita, which the county matches. In recent years, that has generated about $400,000 in contributions, yielding about $800,000 with the county match.
At Tuesday’s work session, Commissioner John Trescot noted the questions around enforcement as an eligible use for settlement money. He suggested the county continue its funding of the task force at existing levels while putting some of the opioid settlement toward the municipal share, reducing the amount local governments would need to contribute.
Parsons was cool to that idea. Generally, municipalities haven’t objected to the amount they’re paying, he said: They just want the county to be a “full partner,” reliably paying its portion.
The tranche of money recognized Wednesday comes from last year’s nationwide settlement reached with Johnson & Johnson and three opioid distributors. The county is also participating in a second settlement; the first payment from that one is expected toward the end of the year, Pfursich said.
The commissioners have indicated they are open to revisiting the spending framework in light of the additional funds.