Local documentary, forum tackle fentanyl epidemic 


It’s no secret that opioids -- fentanyl in particular -- have blazed a path of addiction and death across this nation, and the state of Washington is no exception.

A locally produced documentary titled "The Fentanyl Crisis" indicated that overdose deaths from this drug claimed 337 lives in the state in 2018; four years later, nearly five times that many died of the lethal drug, with 1,850 deaths in the Evergreen State. 

Local Fentanyl impact 

Thurston County has by no means been immune to this tragedy, with fentanyl-related deaths increasing exponentially in the past few years. According to data from the Thurston County Coroner’s Office, there were four fentanyl-related deaths in the county in 2018. The number of lives lost locally to the drug increased annually, to 51 in 2021, and more than doubling again in 2022 to 107. 

The proportion of fentanyl deaths as part of the overall drug-related death toll has dramatically increased, from a handful of the deaths in 2018 to over two-thirds of the deaths in 2022. According to the Coroner’s Office data, of the total 44 drug-related deaths in 2018, four involved fentanyl. In 2022, there were 150 drug-related deaths, and 107 involved fentanyl. That is a change from nine percent to 71%.   

Film and forum

The documentary, "The Fentanyl Crisis," a 30-minute program from Olympia-based TVW, led to the non-profit news organization’s first live-audience public screening of  the documentary, followed by a panel discussion about the crisis.

(The half hour documentary is being streamed now on TVW's news site. Click the link in the paragraph above.  See a related article coming on Monday for more information about the documentary). 

The forum, titled “Community in Crisis: Addressing the Fentanyl Epidemic,” took place at Olympia High School Lecture Hall on May 28. The documentary is part of TVW’s series Washington to Washington, described on the TVW website as “ground-breaking series [covering] policy topics from both Washingtons: our state and D.C.” 

The series host, Jennifer Huntley, also hosted the forum. TVW filmed the panel discussion, which is available to watch on the TVW website. 

“For the first time ever, we are hosting a special live screening of an important documentary that delves into the devastating fentanyl epidemic. This event aims to raise awareness and foster a deeper understanding of the crisis that is affecting countless lives across our community,” TVW announced in a statement prior to the event. 

The panelists 

“Following the screening, there will be a panel discussion featuring experts and advocates who will share their insights and answer questions from the audience,” according to the announcement. They included Sen. John Braun, Rep. Lauren Davis, Thurston County Sheriff Derek Sanders, and Sean Soth of Evergreen Treatment Services.  

Braun (R-Centralia) serves in the Washington State Senate, representing the 20th legislative district (covering parts of Thurston, Cowlitz, Lewis, and Clark Counties). Davis (D-Shoreline) serves in the Washington State House of Representatives for the 32nd legislative district. Sanders, a former deputy with the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, now is the Sheriff. Soth serves as Director of Health Integration & Innovation at Evergreen Treatment Services. 

The discussion began with the panelists’ response to the video and its content. 

Braun remarked, “Nothing is more tragic than what is happening to folks around our state of all ages because of the fentanyl crisis.” 

Davis stated, “I work with a lot of families of loss, and what kills me is the preventable nature of those deaths, all of them, each of them wholly preventable. And each of them capable and worthy of recovery.” 

Sanders commented that the video confirms what he already knew about the crisis. One effect of the drug which he sees in his work is numerous fentanyl-related traffic fatalities. He added that one aspect that can’t be captured in film is “the shriek of a mom when they lose their loved one. …It’s something that keeps a lot of first responders awake at night.” 

Soth stated, “It’s a reminder of why I go to work every day. It’s also a reminder of the complexity of what we’re dealing with.” 

In answering a question for Braun and Davis about legislative solutions, Braun replied that the state still has a long way to go and that no one piece of legislation can solve the crisis. He was disappointed about the failure to get the child protection statute updated to include exposure to fentanyl; it already includes exposure to heroin, but Democrat lawmakers blocked it, he noted. 

Davis explained that she ran for office on the issue of addiction recovery, which is her professional background. She stated, “we know what needs to be done -- things like treatment centers -- but we still haven’t gotten there.” 

“Nudge from a judge?” Is jail a solution? 

Jail works to help get some people on the road to recovery, but not everyone, Sanders observed. Braun concurred, and Soth agreed but suggested it would be better to get those addicted into treatment before they end up incarcerated.  

Sanders noted that his department does not book people for simple possession; they need treatment. “There's no point in putting high-risk people who need treatment in our jail.” He observed that people who have overdosed on fentanyl frequently end up in jail for other (often related) crimes; even if they arrive already fatally overdosed and die in jail, the jail is still liable. 

In Sanders’ first three months in office earlier this year, there were 10 overdose cases, two fatal, he recounted. That is the reality that law enforcement faces. 

The Narcotics Task Force is engaging with the Mexican cartel, Sanders said, but Thurston County has only two detectives available for it. Recently, the sheriff’s office put a specialized K9 fentanyl unit in action, patrolling I-5. 

Davis weighed in on this question, saying, “I have strong opinions on this particular topic. I have hundreds and hundreds of friends in treatment. Do I have some friends who credit a ‘nudge from a judge?’ Yes.” And while she supports arrests of those on fentanyl for harm to people and property, she does not support arrests for possession, noting that possession of such a drug is “a symptom of a chronic, progressive, treatable, but also fatal brain disease.” 


Overall, the panelists agreed that the fentanyl crisis is a complex issue involving a multitude of factors; solving it is likewise a complex issue. No single approach will solve it. While legislation and incarceration play a role and help some people, neither is a complete solution. 

Braun pointed out that relying on the government to solve the problem is also not viable. “The idea of government showing up and fixing it for us is naive,” he stated. 

Funding can help: Braun said that the money is available to get treatment to all 39 counties in the state; it just needs to be prioritized. Soth remarked that Evergreen’s program is severely underfunded, and its two mobile units have to be privately funded.  

Sanders supported the treatment option, suggesting that mobile units like Evergreen’s are a big part of the future in addressing the problem. He added that law enforcement needs funding for equipment: they are often first on the scene in a crisis, even before EMT. They also need heart monitors for overdosed inmates.  

Soth reported on a national conference he attended in his field, which emphasized relationships as the most important element in treatment success. 

Davis similarly shared that a program called the Recovery Navigators -- the only fentanyl-related program in all 39 counties -- focuses on post-treatment recovery care, helping keep people’s addiction “in remission.”  The best way to do that is helping those recovering to access things that give people hope: job, home, family, education, peer support. These things are not billable to insurance, but they are essential to long-term recovery, she noted. This initiative is vastly underfunded. 

Braun remarked that these intangibles are a fundamental problem not unique to addiction. He mentioned the importance of building family structures and stronger communities, but added that government can’t legislate it.  

Educating parents, youth, and all citizens on the dangers, addiction, and life-threatening seriousness of fentanyl is also an essential part of the solution to the fentanyl crisis locally, statewide, and nationally, as the panelists noted. 


2 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • JW

    Here's an idea: let's stop the welfare no strings attached support dumped on the transients which makes living in a tent in the woods a viable lifestyle choice.

    Saturday, June 15 Report this

  • OlyGuy

    Agreed JW.. and give them free reign to steal from businesses and communities...they support arrests for damage to people and property? Maybe people, but not one law enforcement agency in Thurston county gives a damn about your property being stolen.

    Saturday, June 15 Report this