Spokane, Wash. – Eastern Washington Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA-05) hosted a roundtable discussion yesterday with community leaders to discuss the ongoing fentanyl crisis ripping through Spokane County and across the country.
Drug overdoses are killing a record number of Americans. In 2020, fentanyl overdoses became the number one cause of death among Americans aged 18-45. In Washington State alone, overdose deaths have increased by 35.7% since April 2020 – a tragic rate that is higher than the national average.
In Spokane County, fentanyl seizures have surged 1,100% since last year, resulting in the region being labeled a “crisis spot” by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Earlier this year, the Spokane Police Department confiscated 40,000 illicit fentanyl pills from a single suspect, which is enough to kill nearly 20% of Spokane’s population.
In Congress, Cathy is helping lead the HALT Fentanyl Act to permanently schedule fentanyl-related substances to prevent them from becoming street legal and ensure local law enforcement and border patrol has the authority to seize these extremely lethal drugs.
On Tuesday, Cathy brought together community leaders, law enforcement, and the loved ones of those lost to fentanyl to share their stories and have a discussion about her legislation and other ways the community can work together to end this devastating crisis. Roundtable participants included:
Molly Cain from Spokane who lost her 23-year old son Carson to fentanyl poisoning last year. After suffering the loss of his dad, the day after Thanksgiving, he took one pill a drug dealer on Snapchat told him was Xanax. But it was laced with illicit-fentanyl, and it killed him instantly.
Chrystal Slatter from Republic whose 23-year old daughter Milli died from fentanyl in 2020. The drug dealer who supplied the deadly amount of fentanyl was released from jail during the COVID-19 emergency.
Marsha Malsam who lost her 26-year old nephew Rayce to fentanyl poisoning in 2016. Rayce was raised in Spokane and graduated from Freeman High School. Marsha is now a co-chair of the Spokane Alliance for Fentanyl Education (SAFE).
Chief Craig Meidl, Spokane Police Department
Lt. Rob Boothe, Spokane Police Department, Tactical Operations
Undersheriff John Nowels, Spokane County Sheriff’s Office
Dr. Francisco Velazquez, Spokane Regional Health District
Bill Hyslop, Former U.S. Attorney, Spokane Alliance for Fentanyl Education
Nicole Rodin, Washington State University College of Pharmacy
Tim Kilgallon, Ideal Option
Eastern Washington Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, held a roundtable Tuesday to discuss the threat of fentanyl trafficking in the region. Seated at the table in Spokane were families who had lost a loved one to a fentanyl overdose, law enforcement officials and treatment providers.
“I appreciate all of you coming together. It’s not the subject we would want to have bring us all together, but it’s an important issue,” said McMorris Rodgers, who serves the Fifth Congressional District.
She said with fentanyl now the top killer of 18 to 45-year-olds across the nation, it was time for all communities to take action.
“This is the beginning of figuring out what we can do locally,” she said. “Washington [D.C.] doesn’t have any more answers than we have here.”
She noted that fentanyl distribution and overdose rates in Spokane County were high enough that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had recently launched Operation Engage. That initiative will use a comprehensive community approach to wage a war against the synthetic opioid.
Spokane County is one of 11 sites getting a special DEA focus. It has been identified as a prime hub for narcotics distribution due to its location on Interstate 90 and proximity to Canada.
McMorris Rodgers was told by several people at the roundtable that education played a key role in turning the situation around. However, without removing the stigma tied to conversations about drug use and deaths, it would be difficult to get schools, churches and community organizations to engage their spheres of influence.
“We have to lift the veil and people have to talk about this as families, so that we raise awareness and people are able to make healthy decisions,” said Bill Hyslop, former U.S. attorney.
He said fentanyl is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine. The drug, he said, was coming into the United States via the southern border. There had been more than 100,000 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. within the last year, a record, and 64% were attributed to fentanyl, he said.
Fentanyl is cut with other drugs to make them more powerful, and pressed into authentic-looking pills that hides its deadly potential, he said.
Records from the Washington Department of Health show more than a 186% increase in fentanyl-related overdoses in Spokane County between 2020 and 2021, and a 1,233% increase in these overdoses in the three years prior.
Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl said authorities were trying to focus on arresting drug dealers to stop trafficking of opioids. However, he said having the Washington Supreme Court toss the ability to arrest people for simple drug possession a couple of years ago had made that more difficult.
Those arrested for drugs frequently provided valuable information to use in apprehending dealers, which was no longer available.
“We’ve really lost a valuable tool,” he said.
Spokane Police Lt. Rob Boothe said last year the street price of a fentanyl-laced tablet was about $25, but the drug had become so plentiful that it now sold for $4.50 to $6. Where it was once significant to arrest someone in possession of 10 pills, he said officers were now routinely finding thousands during routine traffic stops.
“We are out there every single day trying to fight this with the tools we have,” he said.
The roundtable discussion also centered on the human element of addiction. Three families who had lost loved ones to fentanyl told their stories and shared insights. Marsha Maslam founded the Rayce Rudeen Foundation in honor of her nephew of the same name who died in 2016 from a fentanyl overdose. He was 26.
“Fentanyl is so out of the box, we have to think out of the box,” she said of prevention and education efforts.
Also sharing was Molly Cain, who lost her son, Carson, to fentanyl, and Chrystal Slatter, who lost daughter Milli.
After learning the role that social media had played in these young people obtaining drugs, McMorris Rodgers said Congress needed to revisit the liability protections given these platforms that were tied to them moderating content to prevent criminal activity.
“I’m grateful to each and every one of you for what you do,” she said in closing.
She said the information she had obtained would be taken back to D.C., where she would advocate for more resources.
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