Understanding Utah’s “opidemic” (Part 2)

June 20th, 2017|Issue Update|0 Comments

Addiction and drug abuse is rampant in our state. So what are we doing about it?

Written by Erin Bigler, Action Utah Issue Captain

A couple of weeks ago we learned about the extent and causes of Utah’s opidemic in Part 1 of this article (in case you missed it, you can find it here). Now let’s dive into the programs, laws and tactics Utah officials have implemented in order to tackle the problem and how successful they have been.

Diversion Efforts

Last fall, county officials partnered with the Sheriff’s Department to carry out Operation Diversion. One quiet morning, drug users were arrested en masse near the block and presented with a novel opportunity—they were given the choice between going directly to treatment or straight to jail. Most chose programs (no surprise there) but it didn’t stick. Within months, nearly all of those picked up in the original sweeps had absconded, risking felony warrants to leave “against medical advice.”

Despite its rocky start, Operation Diversion saw success when the program expanded to the general public. A taskforce of social workers, known as the Community Connection Team (CCT) was established to provide assessments, referral services, and, most importantly, funding for treatment throughout the Salt Lake Valley. Since early spring, the CCT has amassed a growing waiting list; families have driven in from as far as the four corners area and St. George in hopes of helping drug-addicted loved ones access affordable care.

The overwhelming voluntary response to Operation Diversion illustrates how scarce treatment resources are for low-income and homeless drug abusers in rural counties beyond the Wasatch Front.


Lawmakers like Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, are working tirelessly to approach the problem from multiple angles. In 2014, the Utah Legislature enacted the Overdose Good Samaritan Law, which sought to increase emergency medical care by providing limited legal protections to overdose victims. The law was amended last year as the Opioid Overdose Response Act, allowing pharmacists to prescribe naloxone—an “opioid antagonist,” or overdose antidote—to anyone at high risk of overdose, as well as to their family members, friends, and others likely to be in a position to administer naloxone in a crisis. Over 350 known reversals have occurred since the law took effect.

During the 2017 legislative session, Spackman Moss oversaw the enactment of House Bill 66: The Opioid Overdose Response Act Amendment to clarify terms in the old policy. HB66 ensures protection from criminal and civil liability to anyone prescribing, dispensing, or administering naloxone when they act in good faith. In other words, a person can’t be sued for using naloxone to reverse the effects of opioid-related drug overdose. The bill also states that anyone using naloxone should immediately help the overdose victim seek follow-up medical evaluation and care. In a recent House Health and Human Services Committee hearing, Rep. Moss along with Dr. Jennifer Plumb stated this clarification is supported by the Utah Medical Association and health authorities throughout the state, while confirming the statistics referenced above.

Justice Reinvestment Initiative

The legislature also re-funded the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) this year, which seeks to reduce incarceration and recidivism rates for court-involved drug users. The long-term view is that JRI, initially implemented by Governor Herbert in 2015, will save the state millions of dollars by funneling drug users into treatment instead of into jails and prisons—essentially nipping crime in the bud. If people get the help they need, they won’t commit thefts or forgeries to help fuel their addictions. JRI funds are used to support indigent populations in evidence-based state- and county-contracted treatment programs. JRI also allows for the reduction of drug-related felony charges to misdemeanors for non-violent offenders.

This year, $9.4 million dollars were allocated to match Medicaid mental health funds to increase treatment opportunities for Utah’s indigent populations. According to Senate Bill 261: Substance Use Disorder Programs, sponsored by Sen. Karen Mayne, D-Salt Lake, and Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-District 49, these new funds will be distributed by committee after a provider application review process.

Felony Drug Court

Like Operation Diversion, JRI has its own set of problems. The reduction of criminal charges, while beneficial post-sentencing, especially for those seeking gainful employment, prohibits otherwise qualifying applicants from participating in a successful specialty court program called Felony Drug Court.

Utah’s drug courts function as part of an effort to combat the ever increasing number of drug-related crimes statewide. Judges, recognizing a pattern—the same offenders appeared before them again and again, concluded traditional corrections methods such as strict probation or imprisonment weren’t inspiring behavioral changes. Drug courts recognize criminal behaviors continue until the issues underlying drug abuse and addiction are effectively dealt with in a strengths-based clinical setting.

Consequently, drug court teams include judges, prosecutors, legal defenders, adult probation and parole agents, case managers and licensed therapist who meet in weekly councils to discuss both a defendant’s court and treatment progress. Long-term recovery is incentivized through rewards including candy bars and four-day vacation passes, while failure to comply results in graduated sanctions which could include anything from a couple hours community service to several months in jail. The real carrot before the cart? Upon successful drug court completion, graduates may have their felony records expunged. Because previous felony classifying offenses are reduced to misdemeanors through JRI, many Utahns who might benefit from the program no longer qualify.

Coming Up

Action Utah is committed to tracking legislation that influences health policy and addiction treatment. Opioid abuse is a primary focus of the current interim session. Government officials continue to explore creative solutions to our drug crisis, such as Salt Lake’s newly launched Pay for Success Program. Community activists will want to monitor its success as well as any changes in Medicaid expansion or behavioral health coverage.

If you or someone you know is fighting addiction, contact NAMI Utah to find treatment resources by county, or USARA to participate in peer mentorship and recovery support groups.

NAMI Utah – (801) 323-9900, http://namiut.org/
USARA – (385) 210-0320, http://www.myusara.com/

You may also contact me, Erin Bigler – Health Policy Issue Captain, on the Action Utah Facebook page or via email here to be directed to help in your area.

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