An ambitious agenda

From opioids to consumer safety, state’s top attorney has big plan for coming four years

In the midst of an opioid epidemic, Colorado has about 30 percent of the treatment capacity it needs, the state’s top lawyer said last week.

But Attorney General Phil Weiser said he would prioritize addressing that shortfall once an ongoing lawsuit between the state and OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma settles. He spoke April 11 with members of Colorado Publishing House, the publisher of the Southeast Express, the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Springs Business Journal and the Pikes Peak Bulletin, among other newspapers.

“This is a complicated case because there are so many people affected,” Weiser said of the crisis and its many intertwining facets.

Opioids play a role in many social issues currently impacting Colorado Springs, he said, including homelessness and crowded jail cells. Shelter space for addicts is also scarce, he said, since most homeless housing mandates users leave their drugs and paraphernalia outside.

Once the Purdue case settles, Weiser said, he will address how to use the funds to have the best impact on the state’s struggling addicts. The drugmaker closed a $270 million lawsuit with Oklahoma in March, leaving more than 1,600 such cases still pending.

“It could be a combination of a number of things,” Weiser said of settlement funds, including more treatment options.

Weiser is in his first term as the state’s chief legal officer. He was in Colorado Springs for a series of meetings that included sitting down with local media to recap his first four months in office and to lay out an ambitious agenda for the next four years.

Along with the ongoing battle against opioids, Weiser prioritized improving the criminal justice system to make it less punitive; enhancing consumer protections; protecting Colorado’s sovereignty from federal overreach; and preserving the quality and quantity of Colorado’s water.

“It’s about being smart, and it’s essential to public safety.” – Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser

Weiser drew a correlation between the state’s ongoing lawsuit against Purdue Pharma – his predecessor Cynthia Coffman filed that case in September – and troubles that plague what he views as a disproportionately punitive criminal justice system.  In March he appeared before the state House Judiciary Committee on behalf of bills that would end cash bail requirements for lower-level traffic, petty or municipal offenses; and would require Colorado judicial districts to implement a pretrial screening process to determine whether some defendants may undergo pretrial release without posting bail.

“We as a nation lock up more people than any other place on Earth,” Weiser said. In some instances, that means non-violent defendants who don’t pose a flight risk and yet can’t afford to pay their bonds may end up stuck behind bars, pending trial.

But on the other hand, “our system, in bail for example, you could be a threat and you will get out.”

Weiser pointed to the hugely successful El Paso County Youth Court, which places young offenders before a jury of their peers and asks those jurors to hand out creative sentences, as a model that could reduce recidivism. Only 7 percent of youth offenders who walk through the youth court doors return, court numbers show, compared to the 55 percent of Colorado division of Youth Corrections parolees who are back behind bars within three years, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice.

“It’s about being smart,” Weiser said of what he believes to be necessary jail reforms. “And it’s essential to public safety.”

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