The U.S. government considers OxyContin, a prescription drug, to have a "high potential for abuse."

(AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

The opioid epidemic ravaging Colorado, particularly the state’s rural areas, will be prominent in the campaign for state attorney general between Republican George Brauchler and Democrat Phil Weiser.

In Colorado, 357 people died from opioid overdoses in 2017 alone.

At issue politically is whether either candidate will choose to join the multi-state lawsuit against several large pharmaceutical companies that produce opioid medications. Colorado’s current attorney general, Cynthia Coffman, has not joined the lawsuit.

The states that have signed on accuse those companies of misleading doctors and government officials about the highly addictive nature of the drugs, which in turn has sparked an overdose crisis across the country.

When asked, Brauchler, currently the Arapahoe County district attorney, said the opioid crisis “will take a generation” to fight, but he was non-committal about whether he would join the lawsuit as attorney general.

“Attorneys general across the country can link hands and go after an industry or a business and bring them to their knees,” he said. “It’s a super responsibility for an attorney general to have and I take it very seriously.”

The approach can work though, Brauchler said. The lawsuit against big tobacco in the 1990s, and the hundreds of millions of dollars the companies paid out were helpful.

Weiser, a former Obama administration Justice Department official, said he would put the whole state behind the effort if he was elected. More than a dozen Colorado counties have already sued, or plan to sue, pharmaceutical companies because of the opioid crisis.

“They are pharmaceutical companies who have deceived consumers, who have made a lot of money and who have destroyed lives,” Weiser said. “They need to be held accountable.”

Weiser said he would also tackle the high number of people in jail for possession of drugs -- including opioids. A settlement payout from the pharmaceutical companies could create more rehabilitation centers across the state where people who are suffering from addiction could go instead of jail, he said.

“This settlement with the pharmaceutical companies will become a catalyzing point,” he said.