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News / Northwest

Tribal leaders urge WA for help to fight fentanyl crisis

By Claire Withycombe, The Seattle Times
Published: January 23, 2024, 7:59am

OLYMPIA — Tribal leaders and state lawmakers on Monday urged a joint approach to tackle the fentanyl crisis and sought more funding to help tribes provide a spectrum of treatment for substance use disorder.

“We are standing here today demanding that we collaborate, that we work together to heal one Washington,” said Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Anacortes, one of the first Native women to serve in the Legislature. “The opioid and fentanyl crisis, a dark undercurrent threatening the fabric in society, requires us to stand united and say ‘You’re not alone.’”

Tribal leaders said Monday that more action and services are needed to address the epidemic. Lekanoff is sponsoring a slate of proposals meant to enable tribes to provide needed services — such as a bill to streamline the licensing process for Indian health providers. She is also urging more state spending for tribal substance use and behavioral health treatment facilities for youth and adults.

Tony Hillaire, chairman of the Lummi Nation, which declared a state of emergency this fall after losing five community members to fentanyl in one September week, called the potent synthetic opioid a drug that “has devastated our families, devastated us at Lummi Nation, a drug like we have never seen.”

“In our history, from our elders, from our ancestors, we have learned to take care of ourselves, to stand up to any threat to our way of life, any threat to our well-being,” Hillaire said. “And this is the most devastating threat we have seen, which means that we have to do something about it.”

Tribal leaders have asked Gov. Jay Inslee to declare a state of emergency on the fentanyl crisis, and Lekanoff said such an order could help different levels of government coordinate.

But Inslee’s office said Monday that although they researched a potential order on fentanyl “extensively,” they did not identify any new resources that could be made available to address the fentanyl crisis under an emergency order. Such an order can make it easier or faster for the government to provide money or help in a crisis. Inslee declared a state of emergency during the COVID-19 pandemic, for example.

“With the Legislature currently in session, they are the branch of government in the best position right now to pass necessary funding and policy actions to combat fentanyl,” said Mike Faulk, a spokesperson for Inslee.

The governor has proposed additional money in the state budget to pay for opioid education, prevention and treatment services, including $2 million for a public health campaign geared toward Native communities and other spending intended to help tribes fight the fentanyl scourge.

The state Legislature, though, makes the final decisions on how state money gets spent. Lawmakers are about a quarter of the way through a 60-day session.

Lekanoff is sponsoring four bills that would expand treatment options and emphasize coordination between tribes and state and local governments. One proposal would make sure people charged with violations of tribal law could not “evade justice” by leaving reservation land.

Lekanoff is also advocating for state funding to develop two task forces to promote intergovernmental cooperation on the fentanyl crisis.

“We know that tribes are asking that this be recognized as a crisis,” Lekanoff said. “We’ve heard from local government, this is a crisis. We as a state Legislature want to be best prepared, and that means hearing from the tribes and local government, through these task forces, what we need to be doing better.”

This year, legislators are also considering a proposal to use some money won in state settlements against opioid distributors to help Washington’s 29 federally recognized tribes. Senate Bill 6099, sponsored by Senate Republican Leader John Braun, of Centralia, would dedicate some of those funds to prevention, recovery and treatment services in tribal communities.