Inside NoVa: Fentanyl crisis the focus of Prince William roundtable with Rep. Spanberger, local leaders

INSIDE NOVA, CAMERON DELEAN

Hoping to combat the deadly, nationwide fentanyl crisis, a bipartisan group of lawmakers have introduced legislation aimed at providing state and local law enforcement with devices to detect dangerous drugs.

The Providing Officers with Electronic Resources, or POWER, Act, introduced in May, would establish a new Department of Justice grant program to help state and local law enforcement organizations secure portable screening devices that use laser technology to help identify harmful substances like fentanyl, according to lawmakers. The measure was introduced by U.S. Reps. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., and Dave Joyce, R-Ohio, and Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Tom Cotton, R-Ala.

Spanberger, whose 7th Congressional District includes the eastern half of Prince William County, was joined Friday by local leaders and health care providers, including Prince William County Supervisor Andrea Bailey and Nedra Moncrief-Craig, system director of Sentara Behavioral Health Services, for a press conference and roundtable discussion at Sentara Northern Virginia Medical Center to discuss the fentanyl crisis.

“It’s an initiative that is necessary,” Bailey said of the POWER Act. “This … is on the route to be an epidemic.”

Prince William County, like other jurisdictions across Virginia and the country, is facing a rise in the number of fentanyl overdoses and deaths, according to Prince William Police Chief Peter Newsham, who was on hand for the discussion Friday.

“It’s senseless that we are losing people in the commonwealth because of this ruthless, vicious and sinister drug,” Newsham said. “This is a critical step forward for law enforcement and a critical step forward for Prince William County … and I hope the rest of our country will see that this is common sense legislation and that it will pass very, very quickly.”

In 2021, fentanyl caused or contributed to more than 75% of overdose deaths in Virginia, with the number of deaths continuing to rise with drug overdoses becoming the leading cause of unnatural deaths in the state, according to Spanberger.

“Since the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen a surge in rates of substance abuse disorders often driven by increases in stress, social isolation and grief … Americans continue to die from overdoses at record-high rates, and fentanyl is the primary culprit,” Spanberger said. “It is clear that both parties agree on the need to get law enforcement the tools they need to fight fentanyl in our communities and we need to just get it done.”

The devices secured through the bill would also help address the backlog of drugs awaiting laboratory identification. Testing to identify suspected drugs can take months in some cases, and the devices would expedite the process, allowing law enforcement to more effectively conduct drug investigations and prosecutions, officials said.

Additionally, the technology could help alert officers to harmful substances in the field and quickly alert local health departments. The use of all devices would still be subject to 4th Amendment restrictions on unlawful searches and seizures, as well as other relevant privacy laws.

The POWER Act is endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police, National Association of Police Organizations, National Sheriff’s Association, Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, Sergeants Benevolent Association, Major County Sheriffs of America, National Tactical Officers Association, National District Attorney’s Association and National HIDTA Directors Association.

Spanberger, a former federal agent and CIA case officer who worked narcotics cases and tracked cartels, has been in support of efforts to rid communities of fentanyl for years. In December 2022, President Biden signed into law Spanberger-backed, bipartisan legislation, the Securing America’s Borders Against Fentanyl Act, which increases America’s response to fentanyl coming through the country’s borders and and the Summer Barrow Prevention, Treatment and Recovery Act, which provides $900 million of support for programs that combat substance use disorder and addiction in Virginia and across the country.

Earlier this year, Spanberger reintroduced bipartisan legislation to crack down on narcotics traffickers who use illicit pill presses to manufacture counterfeit drugs.

“I’m confident that our bill, with the support of both chambers of Congress, has a path to the president’s desk and can be signed into law. And frankly, the sooner the better,” Spanberger said. “This bill alone will not be the silver bullet in our fight against fentanyl, but it can be part of a strategy that helps identify the complexity of the challenges ahead.”

Spanberger hopes to have cosponsors signed onto the bill by the end of the year and federal funding available going into 2024.

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