Skip to main content

Stopping the Escalating ‘Pill Epidemic’ in Indian Country

  • Author:
  • Updated:

Prescription painkillers have become the drug of choice in Indian country, reported Minnesota Public Radio News.

“In my opinion, it’s literally destroying our community. This is the No. 1 problem in Indian Country—the pill epidemic,” said Rodney Gervais, Blackfeet Council member, in the video “Prescription Drug Abuse and Diversion in Indian Country” by Lamar Associates, a 100 percent American Indian-owned professional training and technical assistance company.

The increasing misuse of prescription drugs is a nationwide problem. Yet it appears heavily prominent in Indian Country. American Indians abuse pharmaceuticals at more than double the rate of whites, states a 2009 federal study from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, reported MPR. “Our biggest problem today is prescription drug fraud or misuse,” said James Melbourne, health director of the Fort Peck Tribes in northeastern Montana, in the Lamar Associates video.

On the Red Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota, the issue garnered attention last year with the prescription overdose-induced deaths of a Red Lake father and his adult daughter on the same day, reported MPR. Tom Barrett, director of the Chemical Health Program at Red Lake, thinks prescription drugs filled the void of crack cocaine after the bust of several crack dealers three years ago.

Red Lake users acquire most of their prescription drugs off the reservation, generally from the Twin Cities, Colin "Kelly" Brunelle, a narcotics investigator for the Red Lake Nation, told MPR. But Brunelle also questions the participation of Indian Health Service (IHS) physicians on the reservation in doling out drugs. The IHS hasn’t cooperated with Brunelle’s investigations, he said. "They'll come back and they'll say, 'I can't give you any information because, you know, we don't share information about our patients,'” he said. "And it gets to the point where, we're the ones who are picking your patients up out of the ditch. ...We've got to help these people, but we don't get it."

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Gary Wabaunsee, CEO of the Red Lake IHS agency, said that physicians develop careful treatment plans for patients. "They're not just handing out drugs to everyone that comes in," Wabaunsee told MPR. "They follow the medical practice guidelines."

Agencies in Red Lake including health, law enforcement and drug treatment facilities plan to join forces to cooperatively fight prescription drug abuse, stated MPR.

Other reservations across the country are taking action to prevent pharmaceutical misuse. On the White Earth Reservation, the tribal council passed a proclamation on January 31 declaring a “Public Health Emergency” related to prescription medication and illegal drug abuse. Then it assembled a Substance Abuse Collaboration of tribal resources and programs including public health, law enforcement, child protection, chemical dependency, legal, mental health and community councils to work creatively toward solutions to the problems caused by prescription drug abuse. "The goal is not to be punitive, but to be supportive and helpful," Chairwoman Erma J. Vizenor told The Circle.

According to the White Earth Police Department, 70 to 75 percent of drug abusers on the White Earth Reservation are prescription medication addicts, reported The Circle. "Our families have all been affected by substance abuse; the suicides and tragedies have impacted us all," White Earth Secretary-Treasurer Robert J. Durant told The Circle. "Now we need to need to get away from the blame game and stop letting it drag us down, we need to step up and figure something out.”

On a national scale through regional training, Lamar Associates is offering tribal communities coping with increasing prescription drug abuse and drug endangered children training and technical assistance through a grant provided by the Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) as part of the Community Policing Training and Technical Assistance Program.

Lamar Associates will partner with the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA) and National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators (NADDI) to offer 22 training opportunities presented regionally and through web-based online courses and webinars. The first regional training will take place May 24-25, 2011 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, states Lamar Associates’ website. Featuring courses on prescription drug abuse and diversion, drug endangered children, community policing, partnership development, and problem solving strategies, the courses will take a culturally sensitive approach and equip course participants with the skills needed to address these difficult issues. To register online and for more resources, visit: