Senators mystified by cut in drug task force funding; lawmakers approve other Republican fentanyl proposals

Two bills in Republican Recovery Washington package are sent to governor’s desk


OLYMPIA – Two Republican bills addressing Washington’s fentanyl crisis are headed to the governor’s office for final consideration, but senators say they are surprised by a cutback in this year’s budget for local law enforcement drug task forces.

Senate Republicans offered proposals this year to combat the spread of deadly fentanyl this year in their Recovery Washington package, directing state resources at treatment, recovery and prevention.

They succeeded in passing proposals that would launch a statewide public-information program and fund tribal programs to reduce opioid abuse. Yet the final budget deal, passed Thursday as the Washington Legislature prepared to adjourn its 2024 session, cuts funding for multi-agency drug task forces to combat drug trafficking and local distribution networks.

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, written by majority Democrats in the Legislature, cuts funding to $2.7 million.

“If the Legislature wants to get serious about ending the opioid addiction problem, it ought to be increasing funding for law enforcement, rather than cutting drug task forces back to a paltry $2.7 million,” Gildon said. “I would support spending $100 million to get these deadly drugs off the street. The epidemic is that serious.”

Since 2005, the state has earmarked Department of Justice funding for the local law enforcement programs, which have amassed a strong track record of intercepting drug shipments, including fentanyl. Last summer, the administration of Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee announced plans to spend the federal money on other programs, prompting members of Congress from Washington state to write a letter of protest.

Recovery Washington proposals that survived final votes in the Legislature included Sen. Lynda Wilson’s SB 5906, which creates a public information campaign aimed at youth and adults. Her “One Pill Kills” campaign would be managed by the Department of Health. It would underscore the point that most pills sold illicitly on the street use fentanyl as their active ingredient, even though they take the form of pharmaceutical opioids. Because dosages are uncontrolled, in too many cases a single pill contains a fatal dose.

“The value of this bill should be apparent to anyone who has a news story about parents grieving the loss of a teenager or young adult who died because of one pill,” said Wilson, R-Vancouver. “We can wonder all day why young people seem unaware of fentanyl’s dangers, but the bottom line is, too many of them are unaware.”

The final budget deal also provides funding for a bill from Senate Republican Leader John Braun for tribal programs to combat fentanyl and synthetic opioid abuse.  SB 6099 earmarks at least 20 percent of state opioid settlement funds for Native American tribal programs. Funding comes from Washington’s share of a national settlement with opioid manufacturers.

“This is an important bill, given that every corner of our state is affected by the growing opioid-abuse crisis,” Braun said. “Our Native American tribes are disproportionately affected, and they have taken a proactive approach to treatment that deserves support. I’m glad that the Legislature is providing additional funding for their work.”

The final budget deal provides $15.4 million to tribes and urban Indian health programs directly from opioid settlement funds, and earmarks other money for specific programs, such as a tribal fentanyl summit. Braun notes that tribal treatment and recovery programs typically extend services to non-tribal members and provide an important resource within their communities.

Federal statistics released last month indicate that Washington has been hard hit in the explosion of fentanyl usage nationwide. Washington had the biggest year-over-year increase in deaths due to overdoses during the 12 months preceding September, the vast majority due to fentanyl. Overdose fatalities increased by more than 1,000, from 2,483 to 3,511.