After a lengthy litigation and settlement process, Santa Cruz County made its first allocation of funds Tuesday from manufacturers and distributors of opioids that fueled a national addiction crisis. 

Santa Cruz County greenlit its first round of opioid settlement money to fund the creation of a grant program that will invest in a range of treatment and prevention services for what is still a growing epidemic of overdoses in the county.

The county will receive $26 million over the next 18 years as part of a series of settlements with opioid manufacturers that were filed at the local and state level starting in 2018. Santa Cruz County was one of the litigating jurisdictions and joined in a class action suit with multiple others, including California. The county has so far received $3.2 million.

A vote from the County Board of Supervisors at its regular meeting on Tuesday directed $900,000 to the nonprofit Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County to begin soliciting organizations to distribute the money to. 

The vote also established spending priorities for the next two years that will steer the money to approved uses to combat the effects of the crisis, which has seen steady rises since the late 1990s in addiction and fatal overdoses from opioids.

Multiple pharmaceutical companies, including McKesson, Cardinal Health and Janssen, the owner of Johnson & Johnson, contributed to the settlements, as did pharmacy chains like CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart, which were distributors of the drugs. 

President Donald J. Trump disembarks Marine One at Valley International Airport in Harlingen, Texas Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, and boards Air Force One en route to Joint Base Andrews, Md. (Shealah Craighead/White House via Pagransen)

The epidemic of overdoses was declared a national health emergency in October 2017 by then-president Donald Trump. 

The number of drug related deaths in the county has gone up every year since 2020, according to the report presented to the board by Health Services Agency Director Monica Morales. In 2022, the last full year for which data was presented, 98 people had accidental fatal overdoses in the county. In the first half of 2023, there were 66 accidental fatal overdoses.

The Community Foundation will keep about $82,000 for its contracting work and will distribute the rest as grants that will focus on prevention, treatment expansion and new ways of treating addiction, data reporting, and capital projects.

The bulk of the initial funding, 33 percent, will go towards organizations and contractors for expanding treatment and making new options available. The Public Health Division of the county’s health services agency will receive 25 percent for prevention services, and another 25 percent will be directed to capital improvement projects. And 17 percent will be spent on data collection, grant management, and administrative activities like community outreach. 

The county is prioritizing investments in six areas for its initial uses of the funding, which has certain uses stipulated in the settlements to ensure the money is used for purposes related to the opioid crisis.

The county will target the money to expand capacity at substance use disorder wellness centers and establish continuum treatment from such centers, expand medically assisted treatment in jails, invest in supportive housing, and fund youth residential treatment and prevention.