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Whatcom fentanyl emergency would direct funds for treatment

County leaders also have an eye toward stiffer enforcement, penalties

A sign in response to Lummi Nation's opioid crisis
A sign reading "Lord Hear Our Prayers" is posted outside the Lummi Nation headquarters in October 2023, after at least seven tribal members died over a two-week period. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Ralph Schwartz Local Government Reporter

Whatcom County leaders are preparing to declare a fentanyl emergency, so they can attack the drug epidemic on all fronts — which could include more jail time for users as well as dealers.

During a committee meeting Tuesday, Feb. 6, county council members also discussed finding funding sources for new treatment centers, saying they would be the best option for people who use the extremely potent and addictive opioid. 

Some on the council indicated that money coming into county coffers later this year from a new jail sales tax could be redirected to help pay for those treatment centers, even though the original plan was to put most of the revenues for the first 4–6 years of tax collections toward a new jail facility in Ferndale. Significant funding for services, including drug treatment and mental health care, wasn’t supposed to come until later.

The tax will bring in about $14 million in 2025, according to a 2023 projection from the county executive’s office, and will be collected over the next 30 years.

“The timeline that we have on getting the jail built, and then getting the alternative treatments built, is unacceptable to me,” council member Ben Elenbaas said. 

“In seven years, when we start in on a treatment facility with the tax that we’re collecting, it’s going to be really too late,” he added.

The county has seen a spike in drug-related deaths in recent years, from a baseline of 15 to 30 confirmed overdose deaths before 2020, to 91 in 2022 and 132 in 2023 — although 46 deaths from last year have yet to be confirmed as drug-related, according to a county overdose dashboard

Council also is looking to the state Legislature and the federal government for emergency funding to combat opioid addiction. Council members in January asked Gov. Jay Inslee and President Joe Biden to declare states of emergency, in order to free up the funding. Lummi Nation has made similar requests at the state and federal levels.

Council member Barry Buchanan said he and Lummi Chairman Anthony Hillaire will travel to Washington, D.C. in the coming days, to follow up on their requests.

Council member Kaylee Galloway advocated for caution at the committee meeting, as council looked ahead to a possible emergency declaration in March. Among her concerns was a draft resolution’s emphasis on a stronger law enforcement response and more jail time for drug possession. 

“I just want us to think really strategically about the impacts that the legal system has on the BIPOC community, making sure that we’re addressing any sort of inequities or racial disparities,” Galloway said, using the acronym for Black, Indigenous and people of color.

In an interview on Monday, Feb. 5, Elenbaas emphasized that the solution to the present crisis needs to include more incarceration, for fentanyl dealers and users both. Recent efforts to address the drug problem have focused on getting users into treatment rather than jail.

“Maybe, for a while, we shouldn’t be differentiating (between users and dealers) until we clear this thing up,” he said. “I agree 100 percent with people who say addiction isn’t a crime, but unfortunately addiction leads to criminal behavior.”

To prepare the emergency declaration, select council members will meet with a wide range of stakeholders who have a hand in addressing the drug crisis, from judges to the sheriff’s office, the county prosecutor, and leaders from local tribes and cities.

The plan is to have a declaration ready for a vote in time for a county council meeting on March 26.

Ralph Schwartz is CDN’s local government reporter; reach him at; 360-922-3090 ext. 107.

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