FILE - Police presence in the Rio Grande area has forced many of the homeless out in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said before Operation Rio Grande began, a climate of zero consequences for the open-air drug market made the area a "zombie land."

"If you think that was compassionate in the Rio Grande two months ago, then you don't know what compassion is," he said.

Forcing people struggling with drug addiction to walk through such an environment to get homeless services, he said, was like "asking an alcoholic to go get treatment in a bar."

"That's not fair," he said. "That's why we had to get this cleaned up."

The lieutenant governor and other political heavyweights called a news conference Wednesday to mark the two-month anniversary since the operation to eradicate drugs and crime around the downtown homeless shelter launched Aug. 14.

It has led to nearly 1,700 arrests as of Monday, according to the Department of Public Safety — and it has drawn some ire, specifically from a national homeless expert who last week decried the operation as "criminalizing homelessness." House Speaker Greg Hughes fired back, saying the operation has helped make the area safer for people seeking help.

But while law enforcement has been a big focus of the $67 million, two-year operation, Cox and other state leaders emphasized it's not the only focus.

"I will say this: If that's where our focus ends, we have a never-ending supply of new people who are getting addicted to drugs every day," Cox said. "We will never be able to keep up with enough treatment beds. We will never be able to keep up with enough jail beds unless and until we stop the addiction at the source."

And while highlighting other efforts — including the opening of, so far, 76 new residential and detox treatment beds — Cox said the need to tackle drug addiction goes much bigger.

As big as "Big Pharma."

"Drug companies have to get their crap together," Cox said. "I think they bear a responsibility ... whether it's a legal responsibility or a monetary responsibility, it's a responsibility."

Cox's comments come after Hughes, R-Draper, said on KSL's “The Doug Wright Show” Tuesday he wants Utah to join other states and file a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies that are "manufacturing and distributing highly addictive drugs, failing to disclose to physicians how dangerous this medication is."

"We are picking up the pieces of an opioid crisis that is ravaging this country over there at Rio Grande," Hughes said. "I want this state to step forward and be a state that says, 'We're being impacted in a horrendous way.'"

It's not clear whether such a lawsuit is on Utah's horizon. Daniel Burton, a spokesman for the Utah Attorney General's Office, declined to say whether the office plans to file litigation, but he did point out last month Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes joined 40 other attorneys general from around the U.S. to investigate whether unlawful business practices contributed to the nation’s escalating opioid abuse.

"We don't usually announce our lawsuits before we file them, so I can't comment on what may happen down the road, but we are concerned and looking very closely into the issue and examining our options and what kind of legal remedies we can take," Burton said.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said "many of us are just a knee operation away from an addiction" and ending up homeless, and though the "numbers may be daunting and challenging," he said the state is committed to fighting addiction and helping the state's most vulnerable.

"We can't give up," he said.

Though Operation Rio Grande has made drug dealers' business more challenging, they're still finding ways to sell, acknowledged Public Safety Commissioner Keith Squires.

However, according to Salt Lake City police data, drug abuse reports in the Rio Grande area have declined by almost 70 percent over the past 28 days compared to the same timespan in 2016

So far, nine drug-related search warrants have been served throughout the Salt Lake Valley, and one in Ogden, that have resulted in 40 arrests, Squires said. He also said his team is conducting undercover work with confidential informants for drug trafficking, which has resulted in 35 arrests.

"I expect that before too long we'll hear from our partners at the DEA on how the work that's going on here is having an impact on the larger scale, so I'm looking forward to that," Squires said.

But, Squires added, he "refuses" to think Utah officials "can't do anything about the heroin epidemic in this country and especially this state."

Cox said that while "we have achieved some very important things" over the last two months, state leaders aren't flying the "victory banner" just yet.

"We have a lot of work left to do," he said.

That includes creating about 180 more new treatment beds, expected by the end of the year — depending on about $7 million from Medicaid waivers awaiting approval from the federal government.

Cox acknowledged state leaders "hit a bump in the road" last month when Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned shortly after meeting with Gov. Gary Herbert, Hughes and other state leaders about the waivers.

Hughes said he's "bullish" on getting those waivers approved, but Cox said that if they aren't approved on schedule, budget contingencies are in place to at least fund the treatment beds opened so far.

Also a work in progress is the "safe space courtyard" on Rio Grande Street. Starting sometime next week, Department of Workforce Services officials expect to close the gates to the newly fenced off area and allow only people with homeless services ID cards.

Cox also said a news conference will be called in the next two or three weeks to detail Operation Rio Grande's third phase, coined "dignity of work," meant to connect people in Operation Rio Grande to work opportunities.