Meth addiction has reached crisis levels in some Native American communities, particularly those in the rural and remote parts of the US, and tribal leaders and others are worried, reports say.
“Meth has been identified as one of the major issues in Indian Country that we’re trying to address on an ongoing basis,” US Attorney Randolph Seiler toldThe Daily Republic newspaper in one article of its four-part series about the meth epidemic affecting the Yankton Sioux Tribe Reservation in south-central South Dakota.
Nearly three years after the tribe formed its independent police force, meth addiction continues to be the department’s biggest challenge.
Native Americans and Meth Crisis: Report Digs Deeper
A recent report examining the widespread effects of methamphetamine use in the Native American population in western states has concluded that drug cartels are specifically targeting these communities. Poverty and isolation in those areas make them ideal places for dealers to set up their businesses and recruit those desperate to make ends meet.
“Isolation. Poverty. Lack of law enforcement. It’s the perfect storm for letting a drug cartel infiltrate a community,” Amy Proctor, a criminal justice instructor at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla., and lead study author, said to the Tulsa World.
With the help of a federal grant, Proctor, who is a member of the Cherokee Nation, visited 10 Native American tribes in five states, from Oklahoma to California, for her study. She also talked to police, social service, and health leaders in those tribes who are located near known areas affected by meth addiction about how the substance abuse has affected residents’ quality of life, from the kinds of illegal activities carried out to how meth use has affected living conditions.
In one example that illustrates just how much Native Americans and meth addiction is a serious issue, a tribe told Proctor that the testing of housing for meth contamination found that 30 percent of the units were tainted by drug residue. Smoke that seeped into units’ walls, ceilings, and carpets made the units uninhabitable, according to an article in Indian Country Today Media Network. The reservation also deals with theft as a result of meth addiction.
“Drug users had also pillaged the units for metal and copper so they could sell pieces to buy drugs, particularly methamphetamine,” the article said.
Drugs of Choice Vary by Region
The drug threat to Native American communities varies by region and is influenced by the illicit drugs available in major cities near the reservations, says the US Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Agency. Yankton Sioux Tribal Police Chief Christopher Saunsoci’s experience supports this claim. He told The Daily Republic he thinks the drugs affecting the tribe’s reservation is coming from larger cities nearby, such as Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Sioux City, and Omaha.
Prescription drug and marijuana use are also increasing in many Native American areas, according to the 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary report, but marijuana and methamphetamines remain the most widely used illicit substances in this population.
Meth usage among Native Americans is the highest of any ethnicity in the US and more than twice as high as any other group, according to the National Congress of American Indians. Data show addiction rates in these communities have been up since at least 2006, when Native Americans and meth addiction was identified as a major health concern for tribal communities.
The Congress says drug cartels infiltrating rural Native American reservations can be traced to Mexico and that they are purposely targeting these remote lands “both for the sale of meth and as distribution hubs (over 70 percent of meth is now estimated to be smuggled from Mexico).”
Meth-Fueled Sex Trafficking Rings Thrive in Indian Country
Gang activity, violence, and addiction-fueled sex trafficking rings have emerged as a result of severe meth use in these remote areas.
The Thomas Reuters Foundation recently profiled the seriousness of Native Americans and meth addiction on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northern Montana, which it says has 10,000 residents and is experiencing poverty, joblessness, violence and isolation. According to its report, the effects of meth addiction are particularly visible among the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes.
“We’re in crisis mode,” Tribal Chairman Floyd Azure told the foundation. Azure, a resident on the Fort Peck reservation, continued, “We have mothers giving their children away for sexual favors for drugs. We have teenagers and young girls giving away sexual favors for drugs.”
The results of Amy Proctor’s study also show a strong link between the meth drug trade and sex trafficking. According to an Indian Country Today Media Networkarticle, 70 percent of respondents in Proctor’s study said casinos located in tribal jurisdictions are targets for drug deals and sex trafficking.
“High rates of larceny, burglary, sexual assault, child and elderly abuse,and sex trafficking are also directly associated with the distribution and use of methamphetamine in Indian country, according to the study,” the article said.
Proctor also told Indian Country Today Media Network that drug cartels are engaging in human trafficking and prostitution and that they are specifically targeting Native American women.
“They will develop romantic relationships with Native women and oftentimes move into their homes located on reservations and begin to deal drugs to tribal members,” she said in the article. “Geographic location and isolation, poverty and a lack of police resources also make Native communities more vulnerable to exploitation by outside forces.”
Policing Vast, Remote Areas Challenge for Officials
Native American reservations located in remote areas out west make them ideal for running illegal drug activity under the noses of law enforcement.
“You’ve got remote areas and less policing,” James E. Copple of Strategic Applications International, who is working with the federal government to aid Native American tribes address meth addiction, told Voice of America news (VOA) for its feature article profiling Native Americans and meth. “Even the Mexican cartels, as they distribute their meth in the US, often they will go to Indian reservations, particularly in Oklahoma, Kansas and on up into the Dakotas, to have the methamphetamine manufactured.”
With less policing going on, there’s more opportunity to commit crimes. Drug activity on tribal lands has increased, according to the DEA’s 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary report. “The number of drug cases worked by Indian Country law enforcement programs increased seven-fold between FY2009 and FY2014; drug arrests increased eleven-fold during that time.”
Understaffing issues are also a problem for tribal governmental police forces, the report mentions, which also results in less policing and more crime.
Communities Take Stand Against Meth Abuse
While the meth addiction among Native Americans is growing, some communities are not taking it lying down.
VOA’s report notes the efforts of the Lummi Tribe of Washington State, the Lac du Flambeau Band in Wisconsin, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota and others who have decided to banish and disenroll tribe members who are convicted of dealing, making, or trafficking meth. These actions result in perpetrators being separated from relatives and losing out on health, housing, and education benefits, VOA explains.
At Andes Central High School in South Dakota, teachers have learned about the warning signs of meth abuse so they can recognize when the signs may be exhibited by their students. They also have brushed up on the policies school officials are to follow if faced with a possible alcohol or drug-related issue, The Daily Republicreports.
There is an effort in the Andes Central School District to raise awareness of meth addiction and build relationships with students and their families so they feel they can talk about the issues that are affecting their home life. The Native American Youth Standing Strong program plans to begin “meth marches” in September to call attention to the issue. It offers support to youths in recovery from meth use and young people who have family members who are struggling with addiction to the drug.
A unified community approach may be the place to start in fighting the Native American meth addiction epidemic, some observers say,
Copple is among them, saying to VOA, “We’re never going to arrest our way out of this problem. It requires a community solution — treatment and all the necessary psychosocial support, a context in which the recovering addict can find a job, have family and spiritual support.”
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