White House heroin plan includes tribes devastated by drug

Melanie Benjamin, the chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojiwbe Indians, speaks at the second-annual Summit on the Crisis of American Indian Children in Minnesota on May 28, 2015. The summit was organized by the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and hosted by the Mille Lacs Band. Photo from Facebook

The White House on Monday announced $13.4 million in funding to combat heroin abuse with a small amount dedicated to help Indian Country address the devastating drug.

In 2014, 262 Indian babies in Minnesota were born addicted to opiates like heroin, painkillers and prescription drugs, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee was told in July. The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe alone saw 21 such births, Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin said.

"More than 28 percent of the babies born addicted to opiates are Native American even though we are only about 2 percent of the population," Benjamin testified as she described the threat as the "21st century version of smallpox blankets."

The White House Office on National Drug Control Policy also recognized the "serious threat" posed by the drug in announcing the new initiative. Although the majority of the funding is going to 15 Eastern states, plus Washington, D.C., nearly $500,000 will be set aside for efforts on tribal lands.

Nearly 300 people attended the Red Lake Nation's 9th annual drug and gangs summit in February. Photo by Michael Meuers / Red Lake Government and Public Relations

"Many lives, families and communities have been damaged or destroyed from this poison," Randy Goodwin, the director of public safety for the White Earth Nation, also in Minnesota, said when federal charges were announced in May against 41 people in what authorities said was a "significant" heroin trafficking ring in Indian Country.

During its 9th annual drug and gangs summit in February, the Red Lake Nation, another Minnesota tribe, hosted experts who discussed the evolution of the problem. As authorities cracked down on prescription painkillers and made it harder to find them, people turned to heroin.

"The people coming into treatment now for heroin are the people who were coming in for prescriptions five or six years ago," Rick Moldenhauer of the Minnesota Department of Human Services said at the meeting.

It's not just reservations that are affected either. The American Indian Movement Interpretive Center in Minneapolis and residents of the LIttle Earth Indian housing complex, also in Minneapolis, have noticed a rise in heroin abuse.

David Cross, standing, and his twin brother, Gerald Cross, at a heroin town hall held at the Church of Gichitwaa Kateri last week in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The brothers formed Natives Against Heroin to fight heroin abuse in the Indian community. Photo by Hennepin County Sheriff / Twitter

Gerald Cross, a Little Earth resident, was a heroin addict who found treatment with the support of his twin brother, Gerald. The pair created Native Americans Against Heroin to help other people dealing with the dangerous effects of the drug. The group held its first powwow in Minneapolis on August 8.

“We didn't have any spirituality, we were empty inside," Cross said at a forum at the Church of Gichitwaa Kateri after the federal charges were announced in May, The Circle News reported. "The drugs made us feel better. I didn't care about nothing."

At Red Lake's summit in February, Moldenhauer confirmed that urban areas are being hardest hit. He said the "cheapest and purest heroin in the country" can be found in Minneapolis and St. Paul without much effort.

Nationwide, the Indian Health Service has urged tribes to consider adding naloxone to their clinics and law enforcement units. Naloxone can reverse the effects of heroin overdose and can prevent deaths.

A naloxone kit. Photo by Nabarun Dasgupta / Harm Reduction Coalition

"Opioid overdoses can be fatal in 45 to 90 minutes," the IHS last November in announcing the Law Enforcement Naloxone Toolkit.

The White House's new plan focuses on designated counties in Connecticut, Delaware, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia, along with the District of Columbia. Of those states, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, New York, Rhode Island and Virginia are home to federally recognized tribes.

The program includes about $11.5 million for programs High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas that will address trafficking, distribution, prevention and treatment for heroin addiction. Another $1.3 million will address heroin trafficking across the U.S.-Mexico border.

The nearly $500,000 for Indian Country will go to regional HIDTA programs like the ones that were responsible for the drug charges in Minnesota. Both the Red Lake Nation and the White Earth Nation participated in the law enforcement effort.

"This administration will continue to expand community-based efforts to prevent drug use, pursue ‘smart on crime’ approaches to drug enforcement, increase access to treatment, work to reduce overdose deaths, and support the millions of Americans in recovery,” said Michael Botticelli, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

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