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News / Northwest

As opioids devastate tribes in Washington, tribal leaders push for added funding

By Associated Press
Published: January 17, 2024, 5:38pm

OLYMPIA — Tribal leaders in Washington state are urging lawmakers there to pass a bill that would send millions of dollars in funding to tribal nations to help them stem a dramatic rise in opioid overdose deaths.

The money would be critical in helping to fight the crisis, said Tony Hillaire, chairman of Lummi Nation in northwest Washington and one of four tribal leaders to testify Monday in support of the bill.

“The story is too familiar nowadays: Having to go to a funeral every single day, declaring fentanyl crises and state of emergencies in response,” he said. “At some point it has to be our time to step up and address this issue head on. And a big part of that is getting organized and preparing. And that’s why we believe that this bill is so important.”

Native Americans and Alaska Natives in Washington die from opioid overdoses at four times the state average, according to the Office of the Governor. These deaths have increased dramatically since 2019, with at least 98 in 2022 — 73 more than in 2019, according to the most recent data available.

The proposed measure would guarantee $7.75 million or 20% of the funds deposited into an opioid settlement account during the previous fiscal year — whichever is greater — go to tribes annually to respond to the opioid crisis. The account includes money from the state’s $518M settlement in 2022 with the nation’s three largest opioid distributors.

State Sen. John Braun, a Republican who sponsored the bill, said he envisions the funds likely being distributed through a grant program to support the 29 federally recognized tribes in the state in sustaining, creating or expanding programs aimed at treatment, recovery and other services.

Hillaire said he asks that the funding not come with any sort of reporting requirements that tribes would have to provide about the crisis, which would put a burden on them.

“We’ve been very vocal in describing drug harms and raising the nature of the opioid crisis to the highest levels,” he said. “And it’s suggested that it will take a generation to address even the basic harms of the opioid crisis.”

State Sen. Claudia Kauffman, a member of the Nez Perce tribe and another sponsor of the bill, said during the hearing that the crisis goes beyond the numbers.

“This represents lives lost. This represents families shattered. This really reflects the tragedy happening within the Indian community,” said Kauffman, a Democrat. “And tribal communities, our world can be very small. And so, when there is one loss it effects so many people within our community. And it is felt deeply.”

In an interview with The Associated Press, she referenced the complex law enforcement jurisdictional maze that exists in Indian Country and the role she suspects it has played in this crisis.

“Some tribes have their own tribal police, some have a contract with the county police and some just rely on the federal police,” she said. “And so having this mix of jurisdiction may seem attractive to some of the traffickers out there.”

Kauffman said she sees this as merely a first step toward addressing the issue, and one that would help tribal Nations address the crisis in a manner that is distinct to them.

“The services will be provided in a manner that really honors our culture, our traditions, our services, our value systems, and also to include our ceremonies in an intergenerational setting so that we have the respect and understanding of our elders as well as with our youth,” she said.

Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee has also pushed for funding to address the crisis. In his 2024 proposed supplemental budget, he recommended funding a campaign to spread awareness in tribes about opioids, including how to find treatment and use naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal medication.

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