Flush with Big Pharma cash, Colorado Republicans block key opioid legislation

Colorado lawmakers are considering a wide range of proposals to address the state’s opioid epidemic — but several key measures face opposition from a Republican caucus that received unprecedented sums of money from the pharmaceutical industry last year.

Several top Republicans last week announced their opposition to Senate Bill 40, which would allow the city of Denver to establish a supervised injection site where opioid users could take drugs safely.

The creation of such facilities, which are strongly supported by health experts and have been approved in cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco, was among several measures endorsed by a special bipartisan study committee last fall.

A GOP-led Senate committee also voted last week to block legislation that would have permanently established a well-regarded treatment program in Pueblo — where the opioid crisis, as in many communities in southeastern Colorado, has hit particularly hard.

Republican opposition to such programs comes at a time when the opioid epidemic has caused a historic spike in drug overdose deaths; as many as 65,000 people died from overdoses in 2016, according to a New York Times analysis last year.

It also comes after a year in which Colorado Republicans received record contribution totals from the very pharmaceutical companies widely viewed as responsible for the opioid crisis in the first place.

Together, the Senate Majority Fund and Values First Colorado — super PACs that support GOP candidates for the state legislature — received at least $120,500 from the pharmaceutical industry in 2017, campaign finance disclosures show. That’s an unprecedented haul for a year in which no legislative elections were even held, and almost triple the amount received by their Democratic counterparts.

Among the contributors was pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, which has been sued by at least a half dozen state and local governments for its unscrupulous marketing of prescription opioids to health providers — including southern Colorado’s Huerfano County, which filed its suit in U.S. District Court in Denver last month.

Each Republican super PAC received $20,000 — two of the largest single corporate campaign contributions made in Colorado last year — from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) in early November, shortly after the bipartisan opioid study committee announced its recommendations. Among PhRMA’s member organizations are some of the companies most notorious for their role in fueling the opioid crisis, including OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma.

After years of criticism, Purdue announced on Saturday that it would stop marketing its opioids directly to doctors. The company is also named as a co-defendant in Huerfano County’s lawsuit — one of dozens it’s facing for allegedly encouraging over-prescription and ignoring evidence that its drugs were being illegally trafficked.

The reckoning over Big Pharma’s culpability in the opioid epidemic has increasingly begun to draw comparisons to the tobacco lawsuits of the 1990s, which ultimately resulted in a historic $206 billion settlement between tobacco manufacturers and the governments of 46 states. One of the primary architects of that settlement, former Mississippi attorney general Mike Moore, is now working to coordinate a similar effort against the pharmaceutical industry.

In the short term, however, the crisis will continue to ravage communities from Denver to Huerfano County and beyond. Nearly a thousand Coloradans died from drug overdoses in 2016, and tens of thousands more struggled with abuse or dependence on prescription opioids, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health — and now, thanks to Republicans in the state legislature, they may have fewer ways to get the help they need.