Fentanyl-laced pills — made to look like prescription oxycodone — were seized by law enforcement during a 2021 investigation into drug trafficking in Snohomish County. (U.S. Attorney’s Office)

Fentanyl-laced pills — made to look like prescription oxycodone — were seized by law enforcement during a 2021 investigation into drug trafficking in Snohomish County. (U.S. Attorney’s Office)

‘We’re burying them every week’: Tribes call on Inslee to declare opioid emergency

American Indian and Alaska Native residents have the highest death rates from opioid overdoses of any racial or ethnic group in Washington.

By Grace Deng / Washington State Standard

Misty Napeahi has been to hundreds of funerals for people who’ve died from opioid overdoses.

“We’re burying them every week,” Napeahi, the vice chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribes of Washington, told Gov. Jay Inslee at a meeting between tribal and state governments last week.

Napeahi, alongside other tribal leaders, is calling on Inslee to declare a public health emergency over the opioid crisis, which has devastated the state’s tribes. The tribes started pushing for the declaration earlier this year, the governor’s office told the Standard.

In Washington, American Indian and Alaska Native residents have the highest rate of death from opioid overdoses, far outpacing other races and ethnicities, according to state Department of Health data. Those figures also show fatal overdoses among these groups are up sharply since 2019.

Nationally, American Indian and Alaska Native residents also have the highest drug overdose death rates, the Centers for Disease Control reported in 2022.

Tribes are enacting their own solutions, including culturally-based recovery programs. However, tribal leaders say they’re looking to state government for more attention, funds and other resources to combat the opioid crisis.

Inslee isn’t convinced an emergency declaration will help. The governor said he’s also worried about legal issues: he said he was sued 24 times for declaring COVID-19 a public health emergency.

“I want to do things that work,” Inslee said. “I can’t print money, unlike the U.S. Congress. A declaration of emergency really doesn’t free up any additional resources.”

Inslee said he plans to show he’s prioritizing this issue with the budget proposal he’ll put forward ahead of next year’s legislative session, which begins in January.

The governor indicated that he wants to direct “millions” of dollars toward the state’s fentanyl response. He also plans to introduce a bill to increase education in schools on the dangers of fentanyl. And he said he wants Narcan, the well-known overdose reversal medication, to be “as common as water.”

But Tony Hillaire, chairman of the Lummi Nation, said that the emergency declaration tribes are pushing for is a matter of leadership. The Lummi Nation declared a state of emergency in September in response to the opioid crisis.

“We have to be able to say this is the top priority. We have to be able to say this is an emergency, so not only will your cabinet members be able to address the issues head-on…but also the surrounding jurisdictions, the cities and the counties,” Hillaire said. “If they see that the governor declares a state of emergency, it creates a sense of urgent action.”

Hillaire also called for more federal funds to combat the crisis at a U.S. Senate hearing on Wednesday that focused on how the opioid crisis is hitting Indian Country nationwide. Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat, requested the hearing in October after the Lummi Nation lost five tribal members in a week to suspected fentanyl overdose deaths.

At the hearing, Hillaire said a Lummi mother passed away just yesterday, leaving behind two children.

“How many funerals have you been to in the last year? How many have you been to in the last month, in the last week?” Hillaire asked senators. “For us, it’s pretty much every day.”

“Right now, our people need leadership. They need hope. And that is our responsibility: To ensure that we never take away hope from our people,” he added.

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

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