After thorough deliberations, Lancaster County officials have reached a consensus on how to allocate opioid settlement money, identifying their drug task force as a top priority, and proposing an annual spending of $275,000 from the funds specifically for this purpose. The decision highlights the county’s focus on addressing drug-related issues, but it also raises questions about the broader allocation of the settlement funds and how they can best serve the community’s needs in the ongoing fight against the opioid crisis.
Recently, after seeking approval from the state oversight board responsible for overseeing the appropriate use of settlement funds, they obtained the green light. However, the county’s specific plans for the funds remain unclear, reflecting an ongoing debate, sometimes taking place behind closed doors, about how to allocate Pennsylvania’s opioid windfall.
Agreements with Johnson & Johnson and major drug distributors are anticipated to bring approximately $1 billion to the state over 18 years, with the majority going to the counties. Additional opioid cases are also expected to yield substantial funds.
While some counties plan to direct the opioid settlement money towards police efforts to make arrests, harm reduction and treatment advocates have expressed concerns. They fear such allocations might overshadow more pressing needs, deviate from the intended purpose of the settlements, or perpetuate a war-on-drugs mindset.
Jason Snyder, who advocates for addiction treatment providers on behalf of the Rehabilitation and Community Providers Association, emphasized that the funds were intended to help individuals rebuild their lives and deemed the $275,000 annual allocation for the drug task force as inconsistent with the settlement’s spirit.
In response to the county’s inquiries, the Pennsylvania Opioid Misuse and Addiction Abatement Trust, a 13-member oversight board, generally approved the request for funding the Drug Task Force. However, the trust suggested establishing a mechanism to assess the effectiveness of the money spent and its impact on keeping drugs out of jails.
The question of what law enforcement spending is allowed has been a contentious and confusing issue. The trust issued guidance indicating that drug enforcement efforts were not explicitly authorized under the settlement. Nevertheless, counties could seek permission from the trustees and ultimately the Commonwealth Court if they wanted to use the funds for law enforcement purposes.
County officials are obligated to file opioid settlement spending reports annually with the trust by March 15. However, the trust waived that requirement in 2023. If trust officials find inappropriate use of funds, they have the authority to withhold the money, and failure to rectify the issue may lead to funds being cut.
Transparency and accountability have been called into question, with public health policy researcher Gail Groves Scott urging the trust to publicly share the guidance provided to counties. She emphasized the importance of having access to these documents to hold officials accountable before spending the money.
As discussions continue at public meetings, the Lancaster County district attorney’s office has indicated that the request for funding the drug task force is being reviewed and may be amended to focus on treatment courts, education, medication drop-off sites, and other goals related to the opioid crisis.
Apart from Lancaster County, officials from other counties have also sought guidance from the trust on how to spend opioid settlement money. Requests include funding for a county detective position in Clearfield County to investigate drug-related crimes and a body scanner at the Greene County jail to prevent drug smuggling.
Amidst the uncertainty and ongoing debates, county officials have made decisions independently to proceed with planned allocations if approval from the trust was not forthcoming, and have considered using other funds if necessary.