Whatcom County Council is requesting the state and federal governments declare a fentanyl emergency.
A resolution unanimously approved Jan. 9 at the council meeting asks Gov. Jay Inslee to declare a state emergency to address the opioid and fentanyl crisis, while partnering with the Legislature to rapidly reassess a response; and a second requests President Joe Biden and Congress to declare a national emergency.
County data indicates 132 suspected or confirmed overdose deaths in 2023 through December, compared to 91 fatal overdoses in 2022.
The effort was spearheaded by council members Ben Elenbaas and Barry Buchanan.
Elenbaas said he wants to better align the county’s actions with Lummi Nation’s strong response to the fentanyl crisis. Buchanan said he and Elenbaas met with tribal council members and judges ahead of drafting these resolutions.
The Lummi Indian Business Council declared a state of emergency in response to the fentanyl crisis in September 2023 after a string of overdoses. The Lummi declaration allowed for check points on highly traveled roads on the reservation, and a process for banishing drug dealers from the tribe. County council approved a resolution to support the declaration in October.
At a Tuesday committee meeting, Elenbaas said the Lummi Nation expressed to him that if Whatcom County isn’t matching their “hard-nosed” approach to the crisis, “we’re not solving their problem, we’re just moving their problems from the reservation to behind Walmart.”
“We’re not going to fix that if we’re not in lock step with what Lummi is doing,” he said.
Council members adjusted some of the wording in the resolutions during the committee meeting to avoid what council member Todd Donovan said he worried could seem like an endorsement of unchecked usage of emergency powers.
The original resolutions included references to the actions taken by the state and federal governments in relation to COVID-19, and the ability of the governor in a state of emergency to place restrictions on certain public activities to “preserve and maintain life, health, property or the public peace.” Council members removed the reference to the COVID-19 pandemic in the resolution wording to avoid invoking “images of lockdown,” as described by Elenbaas.
Elenbaas added in committee that he doesn’t want this issue to turn into “political football.”
“I wanted to draft [the resolutions] in a way that [they] would have widespread community support and not have this political ideology put against this ideology because I think we can all agree that we have something that is killing a lot of our neighbors right now,” he said at the committee meeting.
As for the county’s own response to the crisis, a resolution is coming to council on Tuesday, Jan. 23 to declare a county emergency, Elenbaas said.
“We’re not just dropping these resolutions and saying, ‘Boom, we’re done,’” Elenbaas said at the Tuesday night council meeting. “This is just the start.”
Council member Jon Scanlon said he’d like the county to look into state-funded health engagement hubs that are located elsewhere in the state. The pilot project provides medical and social services and harm reduction strategies at the hubs to improve the health and wellbeing of people using drugs, and the hubs could serve as a model for Whatcom County.
This article has been updated to include overdose statistics from Dec. 2023.