King County councilmember calls for task force amid dramatic spike in fatal overdoses

Nov 8, 2021, 5:21 PM | Updated: Nov 9, 2021, 9:14 am
fentanyl, overdoses...
(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

King County saw a 24% increase in deadly overdoses in 2020. By the third quarter of 2021, the county had already surpassed that increase and was on track to see the largest spike in fatal overdoses from drugs and alcohol in a decade, according to recent data from the King County Medical Examiner.

Washington’s fentanyl crisis deepens as overdose deaths continue to rise

Over the past decade, there has been a 118% jump in overdose deaths, from 245 in 2011 to 598 so far in 2021.

The biggest driving factor appears to be deadly overdoses involving fentanyl.

“Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid,” King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn explained. “It’s 100 times stronger than morphine and, according to a recent announcement by the DEA, the number of pills they are seizing with fentanyl has jumped nearly 430% since 2019. Also, according to DEA, two out of those five pills contain at least two milligrams of fentanyl, which is considered a lethal dose.”

“There are a lot of different ways to address a huge drug related public health crisis and one of them is the supply side of the drug,” he added. “So going after the manufacturers, the distribution network, right on down to the street level, drug dealers, we need to go after that.”

“In the absence of a whole lot of leadership across jurisdictions right now, we’ve got to do something. I think King County, as a large county, is the right place to start,” Dunn explained, adding that’s why he’s proposed legislation for a new cross agency task force.

The proposal calls for the King County Sheriff’s Office to convene and then chair a fentanyl interdiction task force that would bring together city police departments, neighboring county sheriff’s offices, the prosecuting attorney’s office, the state Attorney General’s office, and federal agencies such as the DEA and FBI.

“The idea is to really put together a close-knit coordinating group of law enforcement agencies focused on reducing fentanyl distribution and the kind of massive increase in deaths that they’re causing right now — fentanyl being the leading cause of overdose right now,” Dunn said.

Last November, as part of a once-a-decade charter review, King County voters approved two amendments — one that made the King County Sheriff an appointed position, and another that changed the structure and duties of the sheriff’s office, specifically giving the county council more of a voice when it comes to the department.

When it comes to Dunn’s proposed task force, the goal is simple.

“What we want the sheriff to do is actually put resources forward and chair this task force,” he described. “It’s such a new developing drug, I mean, literally the last 12 months have seen massive increases, and so what we need to do is coordinate with other jurisdictions. No city or county or even state can go it alone.”

Fentanyl overdoses in Washington see ‘stunning’ increase in 2020

“We’ve got to coordinate the distribution, the outflow, the arrest, the prosecution — we need to target it specifically, and have focused enforcement of these types of crimes to make a dent in the supply side of the problem,” he added, noting that it’s also extremely important to address the demand side through treatment and other programs.

“We’re on track in 2021 to set a new record [for deaths], and it’s not just the tragedy regarding the deaths from overdose. It has all kinds of other challenges. One is that there’s an economic cost to this. According to our information at the county, the economic cost of opioid overdose in 2017 totaled $8.5 million in Washington state alone, so it has some substantial economic costs as well.”

“Overdose deaths in the United States have more than quadrupled from the approximately 17,500 in 2000, to more than 81,000 in 2020,” he continued. “And so, obviously, what has been happening isn’t working. And we need to get smarter and better at working on the supply side of this drug trade problem.”

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King County councilmember calls for task force amid dramatic spike in fatal overdoses