Lummi gaming raises money to fight substance abuse

LUMMI NATION, Wash. - On April 9, the Lummi Nation celebrated the first anniversary of its Silver Reef Casino. But it was as much a celebration of the battle against substance abuse as it was the casino's year of success.

In its first year, Silver Reef generated 40 percent more revenue than expected, Public Affairs Officer Aaron Thomas said. He wouldn't disclose financial figures, but said the money is kept in a fund for health services and drug treatment and prevention. Money is also saved for roads.

A "drastic amount" of Lummis are hooked on prescription pills, Thomas said. He didn't disclose a number, but the problem is large enough that tribal leaders are taking measures short of declaring war on drugs.

The drug of choice is OxyContin, a painkiller that illegal users crush and snort. The pill costs between $40 and $50 a pill and gives a 12-hour high. It's been known to kill.

If it's not bought on the streets, users are going to emergency rooms with self-inflicted wounds so they can get prescriptions, Thomas said.

Today, gaming money helps pay for the Community Mobilized Against Drugs program, or CMAD. Under the program, Tribal Council members, health officials and law enforcement communicate regularly with other law enforcement agencies, the FBI, Indian Health Services, hospitals and pharmacies.

CMAD is compiling a database of tribal members who are getting the drug. If someone is found to be on OxyContin for an excessive period of time, the appropriate agency can visit the user and investigate.

Lummi set up cameras in the McKenzie neighborhood to document and discourage drug activity there. The Lummi Housing Authority has a new policy that drug dogs will be used to investigate suspected substance abuse. Money given to residents to help pay utility bills is now given directly to the utility.

"If you are selling drugs, we will convict you," Thomas said. "We will expel you (from the reservation). We are not going to let you sell drugs to our people, to our kids."

After he was sworn in for a second term as tribal chairman on Feb. 6, Darrell Hillaire called the fight against substance abuse on the reservation a top priority.

The Community Mobilization Against Drugs program "will provide a safe, supportive and attractive community and living environment for all members of the community," he said.

Abuse liability similar to morphine

OxyContin is indeed a powerful drug. It's an opiate that is as addictive as morphine when misused. It is a time-release pill that is absorbed by the body. If crushed or chewed, it can give the user a heroin-like high.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency said OxyContin abuse was first noted in the Appalachian region but has spread throughout the United States.

"It is only a matter of time before every community in this country is confronted with the problem of OxyContin abuse," the DEA reported. "No prescription drug in the last 20 years has been so widely abused after its release."

On March 28, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., called for OxyContin to be limited to only treating severe pain.

"When used properly, OxyContin is considered a wonder drug, especially for terminally ill cancer patients," Wolf wrote in a letter to Tommy Thompson, secretary of Health and Human Services. "When used illegally, however, OxyContin destroys families and communities. It also can lead to death.

"This powerful painkiller has increasingly become a drug of choice for people who choose to abuse it by chewing it or grinding it up. By disabling the time-release mechanism in OxyContin, abusers get a heroin-like high."

On April 3, OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma strengthened its warnings about the drug, and sent letters to health care providers dispensing OxyContin.

"OxyContin is a ? controlled substance with an abuse liability similar to morphine. This should be considered when prescribing or dispensing OxyContin in situations where the prescriber or pharmacist is concerned about an increased risk of misuse, abuse, or diversion.

"While concerns about abuse, addiction, and diversion should not prevent the proper management of pain, health care professionals should be alert to the problems of misuse, abuse, and diversion."

Main goal was to create jobs

There have been other economic benefits of the casino as well.

The Lummi Nation once had the largest purse seine fleet in Indian Country. But the decline in Puget Sound salmon population sent the industry in a nose-dive; Lummi was declared an Emergency Fishing Disaster Area in 1999, 2000 and 2001. Five hundred Lummi fishers lost their jobs.

Silver Reef created 280 jobs and bumped Lummi Nation into the position of 10th largest employer in Whatcom County. All told, the Lummi Nation employs 600 people.

Of the 280 people on the casino payroll, 50 percent are Lummis, Thomas said. During his reelection campaign, Tribal Council member Henry Cagey said he'd like to see more Lummis hired at the casino. "There are a lot of people ready to go to work," he said.

Thomas said more Lummi people will be hired as training programs are developed.

The Silver Reef is an attractive casino with comfortable restaurants and eclectic, tasty menus - from traditional salmon dishes to stir fry.

There are 300 gaming machines and many card and game tables similar to what you would find in Nevada casinos. Gaming laws require tribal casino slots to be looser, Thomas said. Recent payouts included $5,000 for video poker, $9,600 on the Meltdown Jackpot machine, and $46,000 for keno.

The casino attracts visitors from the Interstate 5 corridor - from Seattle to Vancouver, Canada. The Lummi Nation is considering building a hotel next to the casino.

Lummi Nation has 4,500 enrolled members, of which 2,200 live on the reservation. Others live in the neighboring communities of Bellingham and Ferndale.

Correspondent Richard Walker reports from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at (360) 378-6289 or irishmex2000@yahoo.com