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Knudsen, Tester simultaneously publicize efforts to curb fentanyl abuse

by KATE HESTON
Hagadone News Network | November 23, 2022 1:00 AM

As Attorney General Austin Knudsen unveiled Thursday his latest effort to prevent fentanyl abuse in Montana, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester highlighted efforts in the Senate to make it easier to detect the opioid along the southern border.

Knudsen announced Nov. 17 a new partnership with nonprofit Voices for Awareness to bolster education and outreach on fentanyl and counterfeit drugs in the state. At the same time, he reported that authorities had seized more than 150,000 doses of fentanyl in the first three quarters of 2022, up from 60,557 in 2021 and 6,663 in 2020. In 2019, authorities seized fewer than 2,000 doses.

The spike in fentanyl seizures in Montana has been well publicized. In August, Knudsen declared fentanyl the top public safety threat in Montana and later called on the federal government to deem it a weapon of mass destruction. He reiterated the risk the drug poses during his Nov. 17 announcement.

“Illicit fentanyl is still the biggest public safety threat in our state — no question,” he said in a statement. “It’s killing Montanans, destroying families, and wreaking havoc on communities.”

In one local high profile case, federal authorities seized about 12,000 pills containing fentanyl from a trafficker in Kalispell. The arrest and seizure came shortly after Gov. Greg Gianforte met with local public safety and addiction specialists to discuss, among other issues, the increase in drug abuse and its associated effect on the community.

Overdoses, too, are on the rise, officials said. Emergency responders statewide worked 811 overdose-related 911 calls through the third quarter of 2022, which represented a 28 percent increase over last year. Naloxone, a drug used to treat opioid overdoses, was employed about 41 percent of the time, authorities said.

In response, Knudsen said his office has added to the ranks of narcotic and major case agents, brought on a statewide drug intelligence officer and deployed two dozen drug dogs around the state. Knudsen, a Republican, has laid the fentanyl crisis at the feet of the Biden administration’s border policies.

During a press call with reporters Nov. 17, Tester — a Democrat — likewise promoted work in Congress aimed at fighting drug abuse, specifically the Securing America’s Borders Against Fentanyl Act. Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., introduced the legislation at the end of September, matching a bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., in the House in July.

The act would provide $20 million for technological tools the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection can use to detect the presence of fentanyl, specifically along the southern border with Mexico.

However, the act first focuses on research and development, Tester said on Thursday.

“Do I think passing this bill will stop the fentanyl cold from crossing the border? No,” Tester said. “But it will help us find the tools that can.”

He hopes to urge congressional leadership to attach the act to the Fiscal Year 2023 Defense Authorization Act so it can be signed into law.

Tester said he welcomed joining with Republican lawmakers and officials, like Knudsen, to tackle fentanyl. The spread of fentanyl “isn’t a red or blue issue,” Tester said, but an American issue. It needs to be approached from all “both sides of the aisle,” he said.

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