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Larsen: The opioid epidemic has devastated Northwest Washington

Let’s regain momentum to combat the epidemic and save lives

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen in May 2022. Larsen said at his community coffees, town halls and other constituent meetings, addiction has emerged as one of the top issues. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen Guest Writer

The opioid epidemic is devastating the Pacific Northwest. Between February 2022 and February 2023, Washington state had the largest percentage increase of drug overdose deaths in the United States. In the five counties in Washington’s Second Congressional District, the majority of overdose deaths can be attributed to synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

Beyond the raw statistics is the sobering human cost of the opioid epidemic. At my community coffees, town halls and other constituent meetings, addiction has emerged as one of the top issues. 

During a recent visit to the Everett Recovery Café, a safe community for individuals in recovery, staff and volunteers — most of whom are in recovery themselves — described to me the challenges of facing addiction and accessing the services they need.

It is time to regain the momentum to combat the opioid epidemic and save lives.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Northwest Washington communities made significant progress to combat the opioid epidemic and overdose deaths were on the decline. However, factors related to the pandemic, such as anxiety and social isolation, contributed to an overall increase in drug use, and the strain on the health care system made it harder for people to access treatment and emergency services. 

How do we regain momentum? Congress and the Biden administration must do more to coordinate with local governments, Tribal communities, law enforcement, health care providers and community partners who are on the front lines of the epidemic. This begins with understanding the challenges communities are facing and working together to break down barriers to lasting solutions. 

Based on my conversations with local leaders and stakeholders, I am releasing a report that analyzes the ongoing opioid crisis in Northwest Washington and offers federal policy recommendations to address many of the concerns I hear. My report lays out a four-pillar framework to tackle this crisis:

1)  Prevention: Meaningful action must be taken to prevent individuals from turning to opioids. Federal grants assist local groups like Birch Bay-Blaine Thrives and the Mount Baker Community Coalition to develop successful early intervention and awareness initiatives for youth, but few federal initiatives exist to fund prevention measures for adults. Congress must develop and resource a broader national opioid abuse prevention plan. 

2) Interdiction: Law enforcement agencies play an important role in fighting the spread of opioids, and they must have the resources they need. Local drug task forces like the Skagit County Interlocal Drug Enforcement Unit work with federal partners to stop illegal drug activity within and in transit to local communities. With the help of federal funding, the unit seized more than 300,000 fentanyl pills in 2022. However, recent state changes may threaten dedicated funding for Washington’s 17 multi-jurisdictional task forces. Congress must establish a dedicated funding source that states can distribute to interagency drug task forces and other proven law enforcement efforts to stop drug trafficking. 

3) Treatment: Addiction is not a moral failing — it is a disease that requires treatment. Northwest Washington faces many challenges to treating individuals suffering from addiction, including a lack of inpatient behavioral health facilities. In San Juan County and Island County, the lack of these inpatient facilities severely limits the health care options available to people facing addiction.

The Washington State Tribal Opioid-Fentanyl Summit, which the Lummi Nation hosted last May, highlighted the importance of integrating cultural practices and awareness into treatment to improve outcomes. Congress must boost funding and reimbursement rates for treatment, invest in specialized treatment, and address affordable housing and staffing issues facing local communities. 

4)  Recovery: Individuals who are struggling with drug addiction need ongoing support services to stay in recovery. For example, Island County helps people struggling with addiction navigate support systems. Local nonprofit organizations like Recovery Cafes in Everett, Mount Vernon and Friday Harbor offer a support system and connection to vital resources. Congress must boost funding for local initiatives and organizations that are closest to the crisis and help people in recovery get back on their feet. 

My report outlines important steps the federal government can take to support local efforts to combat the opioid epidemic, and I want to hear from you. Your personal stories and experiences have been essential in building my understanding of how opioids have affected your families and communities.

I encourage you to read my report and contact my office — by phone at 425-252-3188, or by email at larsen.house.gov/contact — to give your feedback and ideas on how to best support your community and regain momentum in the fight against the opioid epidemic. 

U.S. Representative Rick Larsen (D-Everett) represents Washington’s Second Congressional District, which includes Bellingham and all of Whatcom, Skagit, Island and San Juan counties, as well as part of Snohomish County. If you or someone you know needs assistance, Larsen’s office may be able to connect you with services in your community. Please contact Larsen’s district office at 425-252-3188.

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