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Wednesday, November 29, 2023
Nov. 29, 2023

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Newhouse’s fentanyl task force seeks to assess scope of crisis, find solutions


GRANDVIEW — When U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse’s fentanyl task force held its initial meeting Wednesday, the first order of business was to figure out the scope of the problem.

“You’re not going to make any progress unless you identify what you are going to accomplish,” Newhouse, a Sunnyside Republican, said following the task force’s first quarterly meeting at the Grandview School District’s office.

But Newhouse and other task force members agreed that tackling the fentanyl crisis is going to require a combination of compassion, treatment, education and accountability for those using the drug.

Newhouse’s task force, which he organized in May, includes representatives of law enforcement, health care, tribal government and residents who have lost family members to fentanyl overdoses.

In 2022, 43 people in Yakima County died from fentanyl overdoses, with an additional 10 people dying from overdosing on a mixture of fentanyl and methamphetamine, according to the Yakima County Coroner’s Office.

Methamphetamine was the second-listed drug for overdoses that year, with 13 people dying solely from meth overdoses.

Yakima County Sheriff Bob Udell, who is a member of the task force, said he’s noticed that fentanyl overdose deaths have leveled off this year, but not because fewer people are using. Instead, Udell said it’s because more first responders and others are using naloxone, an opioid antidote, to revive overdose victims.

“Too often, we have cases where we have ‘Narcaned’ someone more than once,” Udell said, referring to Naloxone’s brand name, Narcan, showing that even near-death experiences are not enough to deter some people from using the drug.

Task force member Andrew Wonacott said he lost two sons — half of his children — to fentanyl overdoses.

“We have to make a change,” Wonacott said. “We have to do something in the community so families and loved ones aren’t killed by fentanyl and families don’t have to grieve this grief.”

In addition to the deaths, Newhouse said the community is also affected by crimes that can be linked to fentanyl addiction.

Retired Yakima County Superior Court Judge David Elofson, who presided over the county’s drug court, said one positive thing is that the fentanyl crisis is relatively new, and that the task force is not too far behind as it seeks a solution.

In the drug court, offenders agree to go through a treatment program with strict accountability to the court in return for having their criminal cases dropped.

Udell and state Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, a Goldendale Republican, said accountability will have to be a part of any approach to the problem, as well as compassion.

“We often hear that jails saved someone’s life by getting mandatory treatment,” Mosbrucker said.

Wonacott said the solution will have to be a holistic one, as opposed to the approach of criminalizing drug use that was used in the 1980s.

“It’s not just, ‘This is the perfect pick,’” Wonacott said. “We know there is no perfect pick.”

Mosbrucker said the task force will look for approaches that worked in other states and countries.

“This is the No. 1 crisis in the state,” Mosbrucker said. “People are dying.”

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