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How WA lawmakers did and did not address the fentanyl crisis during session

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(The Center Square) – Back in January, when Washington state lawmakers began the legislative session that ended last week, one of the top priorities for leaders of both parties was addressing the drug crisis, particularly the scourge of fentanyl.

Several bills along those lines did pass during the session, including legislation to launch a statewide overdose prevention campaign, as well as a dedicated fund to fight opioid overdoses among the state’s Native American population.

Another bill aims to have public schools teach students about the dangers of opioids as part of efforts to prevent the use of fentanyl and other substances.

The Legislature also increased money in the state operating budget for opioid treatment and behavioral health problems.

Washington drug statistics are sobering.

In 2023, there were 1,082 fatal overdoses from fentanyl, according to the Washington State Department of Health. That figure is a 51% increase over 2022, which set a new record.

Some minority party Republicans say multiple pieces of legislation they offered did not get hearings this session.

When asked what lawmakers did during this year’s 60-day session on the drug front, Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Allyn, said, “Not enough.”

The minority floor leader told The Center Square he wishes legislators had done more.

“There were some bills backed by Republicans that unfortunately didn’t go anywhere,” he explained.

Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, sponsored Senate Bill 1520 that would restore penalties for fentanyl distribution.

SB 1520 was originally filed in 2023 and again in 2024. On both occasions it did not get a hearing.

“We know with 21st-century science that we can treat substance use disorders as much as a health issue as a criminal issue, but that doesn’t mean we need to have that same open hand toward the folks that are actually manufacturing and distributing these dangerous drugs,” Stokesbary said.

Another bill Stokesbary wishes had gotten a hearing was House Bill 2324, sponsored by Rep. Jacquelyn Maycumber, R-Republic, that would have created a bureau of narcotics at the Washington State Patrol to work with local police departments to investigate and solve cases of fentanyl manufacturing and distribution.

Stokesbary said the bill addressed the fact that many cases might not be big enough to land on the feds’ radar but are big enough to go beyond small-town jurisdictional limits.

“Where it’s too much for a little department, but not big enough to reach the radar of the feds,” he summarized. “Kind of disappointing that nobody talked about that bill as much as they should have,” he said.

Sen. Chris Gildon, R-Puyallup, introduced legislation to increase funding for law enforcement task forces from $4.2 million last year to $7 million. But the final budget deal cut funding to $2.7 million, according to a news release from GOP lawmakers.

Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, told The Center Square on Wednesday that he was not aware of any cuts, but noted that sometimes federal money runs out for programs.

“Like with COVID money, it’s not a cut, it’s just federal money running out,” he explained.

A Democratic staff member followed up with an email to The Center Square: “There is $2.7M in the budget to fund multijurisdictional task forces, including one with the goal of addressing the opioid crisis.”

The email went on to say, “It’s unclear where the $7M figure in the Gildon bill came from, but apparently the original Senate budget proposal had $4M, the House had $2M and they landed on $2.7M in the final budget.

“So this can’t be described as a cut. This is more state money than has ever been invested before. That $4.2M figure cited by the Rs in your previous email is federal money.”

Billig said he is proud of how Democrats addressed Washington’s drug crisis.

“I think there are seven bills related to fentanyl and the opioid crisis that we passed,” he said. “It was one of our main focuses going into session, and I think we delivered really strongly for an extremely challenging problem and not something that’s going to be fixed with one bill or budget proviso.

“We’re increasing treatment capacity and making policy changes with bills that we passed to try and address this crisis, which is affecting so many people.”

There was some agreement from the other side of the political aisle.

“I think we had some decent wins on this issue, but the bigger win was last year with the ‘Blake Fix’, which we know will take a number of years for that to play out,” Senator John Braun, R-Centralia, told The Center Square.

The “Blake Fix” is a reference to a drug possession bill that prioritizes treatment and establishes a modified gross misdemeanor penalty for drug possession and public use of drugs.

The bill was passed and signed into law right before a temporary statute was set to expire on July 1, 2023, after which possession would be essentially decriminalized in Washington.

Some of those decent wins Braun referred to include the statewide overdose prevention campaign legislation and the bill creating a dedicated fund to fight opioid overdoses among tribal members.

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