Cox says curbing opioid crisis is key to Operation Rio Grande’s long-term success

U.S. drug companies “need to get their crap together” in helping diminish the opioid drug use in America, Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said Wednesday.

Cox and other state legislative and law enforcement leaders held a press conference to update the public on “Operation Rio Grande,” an effort to reduce lawlessness and aid the homeless in downtown Salt Lake City.

At that event, Cox – GOP Gov. Gary Herbert’s point man on the homeless issue – said while great strides have been made over the last 60 days on the Grande – drug addiction must be addressed on many levels, by manufacturers, doctors, insurance companies, hospitals, moms and dads, all of society.

But for a moment Cox struck out at the drug firms. 

Various media are reporting the firms have “pushed” some kinds of painkillers over recent years.

Getting emotional, Cox said state and local officials, service providers and homeless advocates are fighting “for the souls” of the homeless, and those addicted to drugs and alcohol.

“We have to give people hope,” he said.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said he’s become aware during the ORG work that many Utahns “are one knee operation away” from becoming addicted to opioid drugs, failing in their work and home, and being close to homelessness.

Homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson said the difference on the Grande between the start of ORG and today “is amazing.”

She went on a “walkabout” last Friday, and any number of “our homeless friends” thanked her for the change down in the area (around 200-to-300 South and 4th and 5th West).

Two months ago, a mentally ill man she knew called “me a piece of s-h-i-t,” she said, and told her to “f-off” when she asked what she could do for him.

She saw him again last week, and while still clearly needing mental health care, he spoke civilly to her, thanking her for her concern and help.

In short, many homeless are being helped, with many already being placed in some kind of treatment or alternative programs.

Various law enforcement leaders said Wednesday that the difference in the area is clear.

Since ORG started Aug. 13, there have been overall 1,586 arrests and 822 drug-related arrests.

Cox said the Grande was “zombie land” before, and now the homeless are safe, and neighborhood residents have reclaimed their hope and area.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, one of the driving forces over the last two years in fighting crime and homeless in the area, said he’s “bullish” that Utah will get federal Medicaid waivers that will bring in $70 million, and pay for all kinds of expensive treatment for homeless folks.

But, added Cox, if it doesn’t come, both the governor’s budget office and the Legislative Fiscal Analyst are working up financial alternatives to fund needed aid over the next two years.