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October 27, 2022

A year after fentanyl killed a 22-year-old Alaskan, a bill named after him moves forward in Congress

Credit: Anchorage Daily News, Riley Rogerson

A bill named after a 22-year-old Alaskan who died of a fentanyl overdose took a step forward this week, with companion legislation to a U.S. Senate proposal now introduced in the House.

Robert “Bruce” Snodgrass of Anchorage died in October 2021. In the year since, his mother helped advocate for legislation to spread awareness about deadly synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

The bill, called Bruce’s Law, seeks to educate the public about synthetic opioids through an awareness campaign, a federal working group and community-based grants.

Bruce’s mother, Sandy Snodgrass, said her son had battled substance abuse and was working on recovery when he died. She believes he did not know he was taking fentanyl, which is 50 times stronger than heroin. She refers to his death as “poisoning.”

“I continue to talk about Bruce because if it can happen to my son, it can happen to any Alaskan family,” Snodgrass said. “He made a mistake, as many young people do. They make mistakes. This mistake should not have cost him his life.”

After speaking with Snodgrass, Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski introduced Bruce’s Law in June, with Senate co-sponsors Democrats Dianne Feinstein of California and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, as well as Alaska Republican Dan Sullivan.

On Tuesday, Alaska Democrat Rep. Mary Peltola co-sponsored a companion bill in the House.

“There are very few families across our nation that have not had a loved one experience opioid addiction or death,” Peltola said in a statement. “This legislation is critical to ensuring our communities have the resources they need to educate the public on the dangers of fentanyl.”

Synthetic opioid deaths spiked about 56% nationally between 2020 and 2021. Alaska ranks first among states for the greatest increase in drug overdose deaths in that period.

National advocacy groups say Bruce’s Law’s emphasis on public education is key.

“The bottom line is we’ve got to let people know, and Bruce’s Law is going to be able to spread public awareness and give people community funding to do that,” said Andrea Thomas, the founder of advocacy groups Voices for Awareness and Facing Fentanyl.

In 2018, fentanyl killed Thomas’ 32-year-old daughter, Ashley Romero. Thomas said her daughter’s boyfriend gave Romero what looked like a prescription pill not knowing it contained fentanyl. Romero died in minutes.

“That was the first time I ever heard about fentanyl,” Thomas said.

After a year of grief and advocacy, Snodgrass said, she is glad to see Bruce’s law introduced in both chambers of Congress.

She spent the anniversary of her son’s death this week putting up a memorial where his body was found in an East Anchorage grocery store parking lot and sharing memories with friends and family at his favorite restaurant, Moose’s Tooth.

Through a spokesperson, U.S. Rep. David Trone, D-Md., a lead sponsor of the House bill, said its backers are hoping “to shine a light on this issue and build momentum for a hopeful passage next Congress.”

Snodgrass said beyond pushing for the passage of Bruce’s Law, she is developing an organization to distribute naloxone dispenser kits to Alaska communities. Naloxone, also often referred to by the brand name Narcan, is a medication that can rapidly reverse an opioid overdose.

In the past year, Snodgrass said, she has kept the other Alaskans affected by fentanyl-related deaths in mind.

“I represent a lot of mothers in Alaska and I’m glad to do that, but I don’t ever want to forget that there are hundreds of families in Alaska, just in this last year, that I am also trying to represent,” she said.