Spokane County Sheriff John Nowels will join a roundtable discussion Wednesday in the nation’s capital about the role that social media platforms play in the fentanyl trafficking crisis.
“Fentanyl is now being mixed with every controlled substance – that’s how big of a problem we have,” he said.
Nowels, who took office at the start of the year, is one of four panelists asked by Eastern Washington Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, to address the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
McMorris Rodgers chairs the group that has broad jurisdiction over energy and commerce regulation. She has invited GOP leaders to hear from Nowels and three other panelists at 7:30 a.m. (Pacific Time) in the Rayburn House Office Building.
Also presenting information will be: Amy Neville, founder of the Alexander Neville Foundation; Carrie Goldberg, owner of C.A. Goldberg, PLLC; and, Laura Marquez-Garrett, attorney for the Social Media Victims Law Center.
The event can be livestreamed on the committee’s YouTube channel.
Nowels said that he will have about five minutes to address the challenges facing law enforement agencies when they try to get help from “Big Tech” to track down drug dealers.
Where once communication between dealers and buyers took place over the phone, he said trafficking now increasingly involves digital platforms.
“Drug dealing has grown far more sophisticated,” he said.
It used to be that a law enforcement agency could obtain a search warrant to access phone records to develop a case, but social media giants are often uncooperative, he said.
“I understand the concerns about privacy but we have to balance that with public safety,” said Nowels.
He said with record-high deaths from fentanyl overdoses in America, it is time to figure out how to strike that balance to save lives.
“The market is flooded with fentanyl right now, it is just flowing over our southern border and being distributed in our communities,” he said.
Much of the illegal fentanyl is sourced from China and then transported through many different means into the U.S., according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Fentanyl is frequently mixed with drugs like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine and made into pills. Although these pills are commonly made to look benign, their contents are unregulated and even a single pill with too much fentanyl can be lethal.
It only takes two milligrams of undiluted fentanyl, the size of 10 to 15 grains of salt, to kill, according to the DEA.
Fentanyl overdoses, sometimes called "poisonings," are now the leading cause of death for people 18-45 years old in the U.S., reports the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nowels said that many of the teens and young adults who die from fentanyl poisoning are not addicts. Instead, they are messing around with controlled substances recreationally. But all it takes is the wrong pill.
“They have no idea they are getting fentanyl and that it could be a fatal dose,” he said. “We need to stop these tragic stories from occurring over and over again."
The DEA recently reported that nationwide seizures of controlled substances last year totaled over 50.6 million fentanyl pills and more than 10,000 pounds of fentanyl powder.
Nowels said the scope of the problem is huge and a resolution is going to necessitate a clear and collaborative strategy.
McMorris Rodgers has pledged to have her committee work to reduce trafficking opportunities, as well as stem the flow of illegal drugs at the border.
Last spring, she held roundtables in Spokane to gather information about the scope of the local problem after DEA identified the east side county as one of 11 locations across the nation with enough fentanyl overdose deaths to warrant special attention.
The federal agency launched Operation Engage Spokane to combat the problem. The multi-pronged outreach involving law enforcement, government leaders, schools and service providers is intended to fight the drug epidemic in the region.
Nowels said the big focus of that operation has been on educating people, particularly youth, about the dangers of the drug.
Unless the state decides to crack down on drug use and dealing, Nowels said that it going to be extremely difficult to stop trafficking.
He said loosening drug laws has not worked, based on the results, so it is time for the Washington Legislature to set tougher standards.