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Municipalities across North Dakota advocate for national opioid settlement funds

A big pharma opioid settlement nets North Dakota $45.5 million.

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The City of Dickinson could potentially benefit from the opioid settlement currently happening across the nation. North Dakota is participating in nationwide litigation against manufacturers and distributors of opioids. (Pioneer file photo)
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DICKINSON, N.D. — A lawsuit entered into by the state of North Dakota has spurred conversations across various municipalities as to how state and local governments across the country could benefit from the national opioid settlement currently valued in the billions. North Dakota's potential total amount of funding is valued at approximately $45.5 million.

In western North Dakota, Dickinson City Attorney Christina Wenko noted that North Dakota, through the state Attorney General’s Office, is asking political subdivisions with populations of 10,000 or more to sign on to these settlements in hopes of obtaining additional funds for their respective municipalities and the state at large.

According to Wenko, the AG’s Office confirmed the national settlement projections to be $26 billion. She further added that the funds would help the southwestern region of the state combat much of the issues that stemmed from the opioid epidemic, especially in areas of funding for mental health, homelessness and addiction.

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City of Dickinson Attorney Christina Wenko at a previous City of Dickinson meeting in 2021. (Dickinson Press file photo)

Wenko said that addiction has affected Dickinson, especially with regard to crime rates and an increase in petty crime.

“Unfortunately, addiction is the root of many of the problems in the criminal justice system. The more dependent individuals become the more willing they are to commit crimes to support their addiction,” Wenko said, adding, “It's a vicious cycle.”

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In North Dakota in 2020, drug-related deaths soared to a nearly 50% increase in over 2019's numbers with 118 people dead, according to the North Dakota Department of Health.

Rural cities such as Dickinson have not gone unscathed in the most recent epidemic of opioid deaths. Despite educational, enforcement and community outreach efforts, first responders say the calls continue.

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Lt. Mike Hanel of the Dickinson Police Department is pictured at his desk. (Jackie Jahfetson / The Dickinson Press)

Lt. Mike Hanel of the Dickinson Police Department said that the number of overdoses that occur within Dickinson have maintained a steady two and five incidents per month, based on call logs and officers’ experiences in the field.

“I would say that overdoses seem to come in ebbs and flows,” Hanel said. “We generally know a bad batch of something hit the streets of Dickinson because our officers are responding to several overdoses within a 24- to 48-hour window."

In a previous news release issued by the North Dakota Attorney General's Office, the lawsuit against Purdue Pharma — the nation's leading manufacturer of prescription opioids such as Oxycontin — was initiated due to underlying evidence that exists in which the manufacturer "knew the serious risks of long-term opioid use and minimized or ignored evidence that its product could be deadly."

Working with a coalition of 42 other states and numerous counties and cities, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem launched a multi-state investigation into various companies that were "complicit in creating the opioid crisis in the country," according to the news release. From that investigation, Stenehjem determined that Purdue Pharma was responsible for fueling the opioid epidemic.

“Today’s opioid crisis is inextricably linked to Purdue’s pervasive and deceptive marketing campaign. Purdue initiated the expansion of the opioid market that created the opioid crisis," Stenehjem said, explaining that Purdue Pharma misrepresented and trivialized the risk of addiction from prolonged use of opioids, and reassured prescribers that signs of addiction were due to "pseudoaddiction" and would stop once the patient's pain level was controlled.

“As a matter of common sense, drugs that can kill patients or commit them to a life of addiction or recovery do not ‘improve their function and quality of life,'" Stenehjem said.

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CDC report

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention compiled death certificates for drug overdoses in 2020 and estimated more than 93,000 occurred, translating to approximately 11 deaths per hour, across the United States, every day of 2020.

The CDC report, when taken in context, is alarming health professionals. According to the CDC, fewer than 7,200 total overdose deaths were reported in 1970 at the height of the heroin epidemic; while less than 9,000 deaths were reported in 1988 at the height of the crack epidemic.

The CDC overdose totals have, according to addiction experts and treatment providers, been largely driven by a rapid proliferation of opioids including fentanyl — the powerful synthetic version of the Schedule II drug.

From 1999 to 2019, nearly 500,000 people died from overdoses involving opioids, including those in prescription and illicit forms. According to the CDC, the number of drug overdose deaths increased by nearly 5% from 2018 to 2019, quadrupling since 1999. More than 70% of the 70,630 deaths in 2019 involved an opioid.

The number of annual opioid prescriptions in the United States increased from 76 million in 1991 to nearly tripling that number at 207 million in 2013. As a result, Oxycontin represented approximately 30% of the overall painkiller market.

“Because Purdue instigated the exponential growth of the opioid market and spent the largest amount of money on promoting opioid use, it reaped billions of dollars in profits that are unconscionable in these circumstances,” Stenehjem added.

Though it is not definite what the settlement funds will look like, municipalities across the state will continue conversations with the AG’s Office in hopes to be a part of any final settlements. Minnesota state and local governments are expected to receive up to $296 million in the initial settlement over the next 18 years. However, no final decisions have been made as the settlement will be the subject of legislation in the upcoming 2022 session.

Jackie Jahfetson is a graduate of Northern Michigan University whose journalism path began in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan as a freelancer for The Daily Mining Gazette. Her previous roles include editor-in-chief at The North Wind and reporter at The Mining Journal in Marquette, Mich. Raised on a dairy farm, she immediately knew Dickinson would be her first destination west as she focuses on gaining aptitude for ranch life, crop farming and everything agriculture. She covers hard news stories centered on government, fires, crime and education. When not fulfilling deadlines and attending city commission meetings, she is a budding musician and singer.
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