Opioid settlement funding finds way to high country, where need is great, officials say

High Rockies Harm Reduction Founder and Executive Director Maggie Seldeen attends community events, including the Carbondale Farmers' Market, to distribute harm reduction supplies and educate community members. HRHR received a grant from the Region 5 Opioid Abatement Council to expand harm reduction services.
Courtesy photo

Pitkin County Commissioner Steve Child cites a high number of opioid overdoses in the region, though he can’t say how high because these are hard to track.

“We have an alarmingly high number of people either dying from it or having to be treated with Narcan to save their lives,” he said, leaning on his insights from serving on a Region 5 Opioid Abatement Council work group focused on reducing harm from the scourge.

High Rockies Harm Reduction’s founder and executive director, Maggie Seldeen, can back him up on this claim. She said the opioid prescription rate in Pitkin County is higher than average due to the high rate of injuries from outdoor recreation. She said getting opioids prescribed by the doctor is the primary pathway to an opioid addiction.

“The reality is that humans have used drugs for thousands of years, and if I use fentanyl that I buy off the street, what makes me different than somebody who uses fentanyl that they get from their doctor?” Seldeen said. “My resources and my likelihood to be arrested for my activity.”

Cocaine and alcohol — “the most insidious drug out there” — are also socially acceptable in Aspen culture, she said.

“Everyone assumes that these problems don’t exist here,” she said. “They’re actually worse here per capita because we have fewer resources.”

That will change, at least somewhat, as the Region 5 Opioid Abatement Council has selected High Rockies Harm Reduction and as the recipients of the opioid settlement grant funding for harm-reduction services and an anti-stigma and education campaign.

A request for proposals for a regional substance use disorder data dashboard is still open and accepting applications for that $100,000 grant until July 21. Plans for the dashboard include maintaining a database with information from local health agencies, criminal justice and law enforcement entities, substance-use disorder treatment and recovery providers, and upcoming funding opportunities, according to the council’s two-year plan.

Region 5 Council Co-Chair Jarid Rollins said the council is still working out the timeline for the dispensation of grant funding.

“It’s the first year it’s been done,” he said. “So there are some growing pains and things like that, but we have some good leadership out of Eagle County.”

A grant of $100,000 will be awarded to High Rockies Harm Reduction this year and next year to provide harm reduction services to the five counties in Region 5, which includes Pitkin, Eagle, Garfield, Summit, and Lake counties.

The funding will allow High Rockies to continue the harm-reduction work they have been doing for the past three years — expanding harm reduction services, including syringe services and peer support — throughout the region, according to Seldeen. 

She was involved in some of the council’s early discussions about harm reduction, educating stakeholders on how she works with people who struggle with substance use disorders.

The council identified the three focus areas after months of meetings with stakeholders including county commissioners, representatives from district attorney’s offices, law enforcement, community treatment providers, and people in recovery who can speak to that experience, according to Rollins., a Denver-based digital marketing agency, will receive $150,000 per year for the next two years to launch an education and anti-stigma campaign.

According to co-founder Nick Brown, they plan to launch a data-driven digital media campaign on social media and with local media outlets focusing on reaching a broad base of people.

“As we put out the (request for proposals), that was something that was stressed in the language, as far as how are the folks that we contract with — the vendors — going to talk to everybody across the region, from hospitality workers to oil and gas workers to (agricultural) workers,” Rollins said.

Brown said they aim to connect people across the region with harm-reduction services, particularly people who commute between counties. In addition, they will place emphasis on addressing the diverse needs of the community, providing content in Spanish and English.

“This campaign in Region 5 is really focused on tackling that stigma and making it OK for people to come forward and get help, whether they want to break their addiction or reduce the harm of their addiction, with the hope of just building a stronger community and region,” he said.

Each grant contract from the Opioid Abatement Council is for a calendar year and may be renewed if the recipient is meeting the scope of the focus area. The council was only tasked with creating a two-year plan for now, but they will re-evaluate the plan afterward to determine what direction to move in throughout the full 18-year period.

“Essentially, we go back to the planning process and say, ‘OK, we did an anti-stigma campaign, data dashboard, and harm reduction the first two years. What is the next need that we want to address?'” Rollins said. “Is it more treatment focused, is it recovery housing, or do we feel like we made a really big impact on prevention and promotion of treatment and we want to continue to fund those bases?”

The dashboard will guide the opioid settlement spending over the next 18 years, as well as the funding and programming efforts for organizations and agencies aimed at serving people with substance use disorders, according to the two-year plan.

While there is not currently a database providing region-specific statistics on drug use, Seldeen said that nearly everyone can benefit from harm reduction resources.

“Our demographic is really the general public,” she said.

To maximize the impact of the grant funding, most of the municipalities in the region — aside from Garfield County, which is working on programming specifically for the county — pooled their funding to the greater Region 5 fund, according to Rollins. 

When determining the allocation of funding, the Colorado Opioid Abatement Council prioritized directing money to municipalities, counties, and regions with the belief that residents and providers in the area have better insight into how to best use the funds to save lives, he said.

“We felt we could be more effective by combining our efforts,” Child said.


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