Native American Tribal Leaders Discuss Opioid Epidemic With The DOJ

By Victoria Kim 09/28/16

High rates of substance use disorders in Indian Country coincide with widespread poverty and mental health issues.

Native American Tribal Leaders Discuss Opioid Epidemic With The DOJ

Last Tuesday, tribal leaders from northern New Mexico met with representatives from the U.S. Department of Justice to discuss ways of addressing the state’s own epidemic of opioid addiction and overdose.

The meetings occurred during the Obama administration’s National Heroin and Opioid Awareness Week (Sept. 18-24). DOJ officials met with representatives, including law enforcement, of eight northern New Mexico Native American pueblos.

In 2014, New Mexico had the second highest drug overdose death rate in the United States, AP reported. This isn't helped by the state’s proximity to Mexico, from where heroin is smuggled across the border.

The state’s northern region has been hit especially hard. In 2015, Rio Arriba County, which shares a border with Colorado, had the highest drug overdose death rate in the state, with 81.4 deaths per 100,000 people. 

In New Mexico, officials are looking to the HOPE Initiative (Heroin and Opioid Prevention and Education) for relief. The initiative, created last year, is a collaboration between the UNM Health Sciences Center and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Its multi-faceted approach focuses on prevention and education, treatment, law enforcement, re-entry and strategic planning, according to a DOJ statement.

The problem is not exclusive to Native Americans in New Mexico, however. Historically, drug use survey data has shown that the use of heroin and OxyContin among this demographic exceeds national averages. 

According to SAMHSA, Native Americans have disproportionately high rates of substance use disorders overall.

These rates coincide with disproportionately high rates of poverty and psychological distress that have been reported among this population. Couple that with a lack of mental health awareness and not enough resources to address these ills (not to mention a history of being treated like second-class citizens), and you have a group of people who aren't left with many options.

According to CDC data, whites and Native Americans experienced the highest rate of fatal overdose between 2009 and 2014. PBS reported that by 2014, whites and Native Americans were dying at double or triple the rates of black Americans and Latinos.

Walter Lamar, who provides training for public safety and public health professionals working in Indian Country through the Indian Country Training Institute, sees the impact of drug use firsthand.

Back in 2011, Lamar wrote about heroin's growing presence in Native American communities. As the government legislates tougher rules on prescription drugs, thus reducing their availability, he predicted that "the return of heroin is imminent." 

"Heroin is and has been a problem in Indian Country," Lamar told The Fix, "but as with most issues affecting tribal communities, the rest of the country couldn't care less."

He continued, "Imagine that since August, there have been thousands of Native Americans camped in North Dakota standing against the construction of an interstate oil pipeline, yet the mainstream media has given little or no attention to this major event. Tribes from across the nation have sent delegations and have offered support, unprecedented in contemporary history, yet an absent media. But a handful of white protesters taking over an abandoned BLM ranger station had the national media falling all over themselves trying to get the next sound bite, or video clip.

"So, is the rest of the country aware of Indian Country’s heroin problem? No, and they don’t care."

When asked if the DOJ's efforts to reach out to tribal leaders gave him any hope, Lamar told The Fix, "Simple answer, no. Truly it is a very complicated answer."

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr