Sometimes when you make a prediction, you hope that you're wrong. More than a year ago, I sounded a warning that prescription painkiller addiction, combined with an uptick in Mexican heroin traffic, was going to result in more suffering in our tribal communities. Even though we saw it coming, it's with a heavy heart that we have been reading about this dual problem resulting in overdoses, arrests and child endangerment among the tribal nations of Minnesota.
According to a recent threat assessment, prescription drug trafficking has been a growing problem on tribal lands. Both the White Earth and Red Lake nations have declared public health emergencies related to prescription drug abuse. In 2011, prescription drugs were involved in 14.4% of drug arrests, up from 4.5 percent seven years before.
Prescription drug abuse drives opiate addicts to use whatever they can get, and heroin is chemically similar to morphine or oxycodone. Not only are the prescription pills expensive, pharmaceutical companies recently altered prescription formulas to minimize the euphoric sensations that addicts crave. On the other hand, the inexpensive heroin distributed from Twin Cities dealers is said to be the purest—and most lethal—in the country.
According to the 2012 Drug & Violent Crime Task Forces, the average Minnesota heroin user is between 16-28 years old and has turned to heroin after becoming addicted to prescription painkillers. Despite huge crackdowns at ports and other points of entry to the state, the easily ingested, powdered heroin still floods the markets.
The seemingly limitless supply of cheap heroin is resulting in scores of deaths from overdoses, not just in urban areas, but increasingly in tribal communities as well. The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe have suffered in many ways from this dual problem of prescription drug and heroin abuse. Four people have died from overdoses, first responders have saved many more, and the courts have been busy processing arrests for possession, theft, distribution and child endangerment. Murder charges have even been brought against three dealers whose products caused an Onamia man's overdose.
The story is the same in other Minnesota tribal communities, which along with urban areas, are seeing the most heroin-related arrests in the state. White Earth Police Chief Randy Goodwin observed, "We still do have a huge prescription pill problem. We have heroin coming back strong on the White Earth Nation, and all of the crimes associated with that, and the overdosing and people dying." Together with the nearby Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, the communities are taking advantage of a new program under the Tribal Law and Order Act to enlist the aid of federal prosecutors in pursuing the most serious cases. In White Earth, Goodwin points to drug use as the motivating factor for many crimes on the reservation.
In addition to the addicts, law enforcement officers and courts caught up directly in the escalation of heroin crimes, the epidemic is impacting families, neighbors and communities. Sadly, the children of heroin and prescription drug abusers suffer the most from this problem. During drug raids, small children have been found in filthy rooms scattered with paraphernalia, drugs, and firearms. One bust in Onamia found four children, including one infant, sleeping on blankets black with dirt in a house where all five adults—including three men unrelated to the mother—were found in possession of heroin and prescription opiates. The partnering law enforcement agencies of North Central Drug Task Force also warn about dangers of HIV and hepatitis infection from infected needles.
The other danger is children using heroin themselves. In Hennepin County, a mother pressured her 12-year-old daughter to smoke heroin. While this case got attention as a shocking example, Minnesota high school students use heroin more than average American teens. Some youth become addicted to prescription drugs after a sports injury, then turn to heroin. Others become addicted by pilfering unsecured drugs used by an ill or injured friend or family member.
Tribal, state and federal officers observing the problem stress that one of the keys to ending this epidemic of children affected by heroin is by preventing an initial addiction to prescription opiates. In addition to prevention, education and treatment is critical. People with prescription drug addiction who get into treatment programs have a good chance of recovery.
The other key to solving this crisis is community collaboration. Just as the people at White Earth and Leech Lake have discovered, this problem is too big for one agency to handle alone. Partnerships are essential to bring community members and service providers together, including health care providers, schools, treatment centers, concerned individuals and others. As we work together toward a vision of healthier communities, we can take the steps we need to lead our people off this dangerous path of addiction. Tribal communities across the nation must pay heed to ensure the safety of our relatives.
Walter Lamar, Blackfeet/Wichita, is a former FBI Special Agent, Deputy Director of BIA Law Enforcement and currently President of Lamar Associates. Lamar Associates Indian Country Training Division offers culturally appropriate training for Indian Country law enforcement and service professionals with both on-site and online courses.