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‘I feel like we’re at ground zero’: Victims, law enforcement and addiction experts talk fentanyl in roundtable with Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers

UPDATED: Wed., April 13, 2022

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, second from right, speaks during a panel discussing fentanyl on the campus of Washington State University-Spokane on Tuesday.  (Kip Hill/Spokesman-Review)
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, second from right, speaks during a panel discussing fentanyl on the campus of Washington State University-Spokane on Tuesday. (Kip Hill/Spokesman-Review)

The availability and potency of illicit fentanyl is increasing on the streets of Eastern Washington, with parents unaware of the growing threat, according to law enforcement, family members of victims and addiction specialists who spoke with Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers this week.

“What is the curriculum? I feel like we’re at ground zero,” said Molly Cain, a local teacher whose 23-year-old son, Carson, died in November 2020 of an overdose on the synthetic opioid that has been declared a public health emergency and drawn federal resources to Spokane.

McMorris Rodgers convened a panel of representatives from the Spokane Police Department, Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, Spokane Regional Health District and Washington State University’s School of Pharmacy to consider what could be done federally to address the local problem. Seizures of the drug, which has been sold on the street in pill form since at least 2016, according to law enforcement, increased 1,100% in Spokane County and 2,700% in Eastern Washington from 2020 to 2021, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

“There’s no escape,” the congresswoman said after Cain and others shared their stories of overdoses. “It can happen to anyone, anywhere.”

Molly Cain said that’s what happened to her son. He’d just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was taking a break from studies at Gonzaga University when he ran out of his prescribed antidepressant Xanax, she said. He bought one pill off the social media application SnapChat, took it after going home from Thanksgiving dinner 1½ years ago and died of an overdose. Molly Cain found him the next day.

“My son made a mistake in his life,” Cain said. “And I think those are the things we need to get out to the public as well, understanding that this is indiscriminate.”

McMorris Rodgers asked Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl and Lt. Rob Boothe whether social media companies were complying with investigative efforts to track down dealers who use their apps to sell drugs. Boothe said the companies are complying with search warrants, but the speed at which the deals take place and content is sent to servers presents a challenge.

The congresswoman, who’s been critical of the Section 230 protections afforded social media firms to shield them from liability for speech on their platforms, continued to criticize that protection in her comments Tuesday related to illicit activity.

“In exchange for the liability protections, they were to moderate content, they were to moderate the illicit, illegal content on their platforms,” she said.

Apps can have the added effect of confusing online purchasers and giving them a false sense of security, said Nicole Rodin, an assistant professor of pharmacotherapy at Washington State University’s College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.

“One example I see quite often is a pill ID app,” Rodin said. “Now they have these apps that are free, and it comes up just looking like a Xanax, and scores just like a Xanax, and it looks like a Xanax. And they’re thinking they’re just taking a Xanax.”

But that pill may be laced with fentanyl. Some areas of the country, including San Francisco, have gone so far as to provide bars and other businesses with testing strips to determine whether the drugs people are taking are spiked with the opioid that can be cut with other drugs to increase profitability on the streets.

Boothe said officers are not just recovering pills on the streets, but fentanyl powder, indicating that the pills that were once manufactured overseas or in Mexico and smuggled to Spokane may be in production in town.

“It means we have pill mills here in Spokane,” he said. “And if we have pill mills here in Spokane, then they’re other places as well.”

McMorris Rodgers opened her comments with a description of legislation she supports that would classify drugs that have a chemical makeup similar to fentanyl as Schedule I substances permanently under federal law.

An emergency order was issued by the DEA in 2018 that placed such substances into a category of drugs that are considered the most dangerous and carry the highest penalties for possession and sale, but that order has had to be repeatedly renewed by Congress.

“What is happening in recent years, is that they change the chemical makeup and it is just to avoid enforcement,” the congresswoman said in an interview.

Republicans, including McMorris Rodgers, have backed the bill on Capitol Hill, but some groups representing criminal defendants have told the United States Government Accountability Office that extending the law may lead to lengthy, mandatory prison sentences for dealing substances that are not as dangerous as fentanyl. It could also continue to exacerbate racial disparities in incarceration in federal prisons, a trend that has been ongoing since reform of the nation’s drug laws in the 1980s that imposed minimums for the sale of crack cocaine and other drugs.

In the most recent funding bill, Congress extended the scheduling of what are known as “fentanyl analogs” under Schedule I through the end of this year.

McMorris Rodgers said the proposal was just one of many steps needed to address the public health crisis.

“In general, we need to raise awareness,” she said. “We need more treatment options. We also need more research around what’s going to work effectively.”

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