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Tribal Governments, Ganja and OxyContin: When Government Says Dope Is "OK"

The U.S. government and Tribal governments are changing their stance on drugs. Is this a good thing? Gyasi Ross ponders dope on sovereign land.
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The United States Food and Drug Association recently approved the use of OxyContin for children as young as 11. Folks say that powerful narcotics like OxyContin are necessary. Maybe? I mean, OxyContin has only been on the market for twenty years and somehow people coped without it. Before that it was simply called “heroin.”

But it begs the question—can something that the human race existed without for millennia really be considered “necessary?”

In any event, the fact is that painkillers are absolutely tearing Native communities up. Kids, of course—they’re the most vulnerable. But moms, dads, aunties, uncles, grandpas and grandmas, Councilpeople and common folks all are affected by prescription pills. I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m pretty sure that every single person who’s reading this story either has been affected by prescription pill addiction or knows of someone who has had a prescription pill addiction. Myself, I currently have folks within my family who are struggling with prescription pill addiction.

Which makes me consider drugs more generally—what message does it send when governments say that drugs are ok?

Sure, we all know that drug use and abuse happens. Yet, when institutions that are entrusted with the protection of a group of people—whether a tribal government, a state government, or the FDA—says that something that has been shown to be harmful is ok, what does that tell its citizens? Serious question—I don’t know the answer. There are some folks who say (and some science that also says) that when you remove the taboo and illegality from drugs, young folks aren’t as intrigued by them. “Legalize it!” they say, and the appeal goes away. And that may actually be true—I’m not sure. I know that the “dry reservation” theory seems to be a failure—maybe that’s true of drug-free reservations. And since those reservations won’t be drug-free, the Tribe may as well make the money for the sale? Something like that.

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Perhaps that’s why the FDA is making OxyContin (essentially heroin in pill form) legal. Perhaps that is why some Tribes are producing and processing today’s legal super-powered weed (60-65% more potent than in the 1970s, according to the University of Mississippi’s Marijuana Potency Project).


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Both represent a HUGE deviation from history for both governments. From the United States’ perspective, of course, this is a seismic shift from government that prohibited alcohol for years and pushed the “Reefer Madness” line of paranoid thinking (courtesy of William Randolph Hearst and Harry Anslinger) into public policy. For Tribal governments, where drugs and alcohol have taken a major toll on our communities, this is likewise a momentous shift. I don’t think anyone doubts that Tribes have the right to deal weed—of course they do. Sovereign land. But I think there are many that question the propriety of Tribes dealing weed. To wit, many within my generation grew up looking at “Choose Tradition Not Addiction” posters and thinking that this was the formula for NOT repeating some of the mistakes of previous generations. Many of us likewise remember when Tribes were trying to close down places of ill repute on our reservations instead of opening them up. Many of us believed that it was our duty to honor previous generations by abstaining from alcohol and substances.

It was an important statement for individual Natives who sought to be change agents within Native communities. “Clean and sober.” “Red Road.” All of that. It meant something for a lot of us.

Maybe it doesn’t mean as much now—maybe “clean and sober” isn’t a good goal for Native kids anymore?

Once again, maybe it’s psychological—maybe the FDA and Tribal governments truly believe that by opening up the pandora’s box to every desire and vice, the mystique goes away and that the citizenry will therefore benefit. I honestly don’t know—I hope that our leaders have a plan to deal with the affected folks within our communities. What I do know is that the way that OxyContin and other pain pills have affected our communities makes me suspicious. But maybe legalization is the way ultimately.

Yet, either way, it’s a huge change when the government gets into the drug game. It’s likewise a huge change when the government is the one that says that drugs are cool. Outside of morality or spirituality, it’s 100% certain that we’re entering a new era from how things have always been, especially for Native people. Maybe we’re past the point where we need to encourage tradition and not addiction to Native people and instead folks should make that decision for themselves.

What do you folks think?

Photo credit: The Other 98% Facebook page

Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large
Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories
Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi