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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘It’s about fighting to save lives’: New Spokane fentanyl initiative aims to unite community to defeat epidemic

Spokane County Sheriff’s Office deputies seized fentanyl, oxycodone, methamphetamine, drug paraphernalia and cash during a traffic stop in mid-April.  (Courtesy of Spokane County Sheriff's Office)

The threat posed by the synthetic opioid fentanyl is unlike any other illicit drug crisis and will take coordination from lawmakers, business leaders and educators, a roomful of Spokane leaders was told Thursday.

“We all have a stake in dealing with the demand side,” said former U.S. Attorney Bill Hyslop, a founding board member of the group Spokane Alliance for Fentanyl Education , which held a symposium at the Davenport Grand Hotel as part of its effort to address what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified as an epidemic.

The group includes members of the law enforcement and public health communities on its board, as well as families affected by overdoses on the drug, which totaled 1,134 in Washington state alone last year. Derek Maltz, a former director of the Special Operations Division of the Department of Justice and Drug Enforcement Administration, said it was the first time he’d seen people from so many disciplines united to hear about the issue.

“It’s about fighting to save lives, and it’s not going to be done by arresting people all day long,” said Maltz, who has made national cable news appearances pushing for action on the exploding import of the illicit painkiller. “There has to be engagement from everyone.”

Several audience members expressed surprise at the scope of the trade. Seizures of the drug, often sold in pill form and laced with other prescription and illicit drugs, increased nearly 1,100% from 2020 to 2021, the DEA reported.

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward called the explosion of the availability of the drug “the challenge of our time.”

“It’s so powerful, it’s almost paralyzing,” Woodward said.

After speeches, representatives of the Spokane Police Department, detention services, health care and treatment providers, business interests, school districts and more broke out into groups to talk about whether fentanyl was being addressed in their communities and what more could be done. The goal, organizers say, is to return in the fall with a coordinated plan, including methods to reach school-age children and young adults, who are experiencing a large portion of overdose deaths. Drugs are being sold via smartphone applications and social media platforms, law enforcement agents warned.

One of those was 26-year-old Rayce Rudeen, a Freeman High School graduate who died in June 2016. His aunt, Marsha Malsam, is the chief executive officer of a foundation bearing Rudeen’s name. Malsam said she was encouraged by Thursday’s turnout.

“The breakout groups that we had, they got that we have to work together,” Malsam said. “We have to do something a little different than any other approach we’ve done.”

Thursday’s final speaker was Roger Powell, a minister and an assistant basketball coach at Gonzaga University who told the assembled crowd he’d grown up around drugs and was recruited by a family member to move drugs on his bike one day. A voice inside told him not to use some of the dope he was paid with.

Powell said the difference today is that fentanyl does not offer a do-over. Many users die of respiratory failure after just one pill.

“Now, it’s not about not doing drugs, it’s about not touching them,” Powell said. “Because you don’t know if you have a second chance.”