It was in 1995 that OxyContin, the pharmaceutical opioid intended for pain management, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
And after 28 years, relief from its devastating impacts is finally around the corner.
The SouthWEST Opioid Response District – a union of five adjacent counties organized to take on the opioid overdose crisis – has announced it intends to spend the bulk of its first $1.5 million to build recovery housing in Southwest Colorado.
With 63%, or $945,000, allocated to recovery housing, $300,000 of the remaining funds will be available through grants to local and regional organizations working to stem the impact of opioids.
The remaining funds will be spent on consulting to ensure that the funds are well-leveraged, as well as infrastructure needs throughout the region.
Over 20 years have passed since Purdue Pharma, OxyContin’s manufacturer, was warned that its marketing for the drug was “grossly” misleading.
Still, the number of prescriptions rose, precipitating an addiction crisis. Since 1999, over 1 million Americans have died of a drug overdose; in 2021, over 75% of drug overdoses involved an opioid.
SWORD’s money comes from Colorado’s settlements with the manufacturers, including Purdue, and distributors of the pharmaceuticals responsible for spurring the overdose epidemic. The settlements total over $740 million to date.
The funding announcement is a “big milestone,” according to Heather Otter, the SWORD facilitator.
The district, which comprises Archuleta, Dolores, La Plata, Montezuma and San Juan counties, will receive an estimated $7.5 million between now and 2038. The $1.5 million, which the SWORD board voted to allocate at a meeting Nov. 8, is the funding made available in the first two years following the settlements. SWORD is the last of the state’s 19 regions to use the initial round of settlement dollars.
Board members had previously contemplated building an inpatient treatment facility in Southwest Colorado. Following a feasibility study conducted by an outside consultant, the group decided to pursue recovery housing instead.
“While inpatient treatment is still a gap here, we didn't see it as being sustainable financially (and) workforce-wise, and not able to serve as many people across our region as something like the recovery residence and related programs,” Otter said.
Claire West, the recently hired SWORD coordinator, said the level three recovery residence will provide less care than an inpatient treatment facility but more than a sober living facility.
“Everyone that lives in the house is sober, but they go externally for group therapy, meetings (or) medically assisted treatment,” she said.
The size and location of the facility remains to be seen. Otter said the board wants it to be centrally located to serve all five counties, and she expects proposals for several different locations across the region. The tentative goal is to have the residence open within three years.
In addition to the nearly $1 million in settlement funds, SWORD plans to “braid” in funding from other sources.
The announcement comes on the heels of similar news from the Colorado Agency for Recovery Residences, which informed SWORD that it plans to open up four sober living homes within the next year. CARR expects to create separate homes for men and women in Montezuma and La Plata counties.
The organization has $50,000 per house set aside in American Rescue Plan Act funding, which will be used to rent buildings and furnish them. The homes typically house approximately eight people in recovery.
Without inpatient treatment nearby, CARR Executive Director Butch Lewis says that people in recovery can struggle to stay sober after returning from treatment, which is often as far away as Denver.
“That cycle of addiction just keep repeating itself,” he said. “And so what we're trying to do is by adding in recovery residences, we're trying to circumvent that cycle from happening and put a break in there by standing up a community that will support these individuals.”
Although there is an air of frustration stemming from the infeasibility of an inpatient facility, stakeholders all agree the sober living homes and recovery residences are critical to building a landscape of recovery in the region.
People in recovery have previously told The Durango Herald that although leaving the area for treatment is one burden, coming back to a desolate recovery community can be an entirely different struggle.
Candice Ludwig, the southwest region manager for Advocates for Recovery Colorado, has been on her own recovery journey in Durango. She is now a leader in the recovery community, calling SWORD’s decision a “huge win.”
“A theme that I've seen with a lot of folks that I've worked with throughout the years is the lack of stable, supportive living environment,” Ludwig said. “ … There's nowhere stable for people to land for them to actually develop and apply the tools that they've gained through their experience in treatment or through the justice system.”
The available funding “couldn’t make a dent” in developing an inpatient facility, Ludwig said. However, it can enrich the soil of the region’s recovery landscape.
“Housing is great and it's long term and it's much more sustainable,” she said.