Special to Indian Country Today
While the COVID-19 checkpoints and shutdown may have been successful in keeping numbers of the potentially deadly virus low among the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ citizens and residents, it’s had little, if any, impact on the trafficking of heroin and other illegal drugs to the tribe’s land in North Carolina.
Opioid addiction still continues to be a problem for the tribe, and it continued to ravage the reservation during a time people were isolating trying to reduce spreading the virus.
According to statistics released by the Cherokee Indian Police Department May 3, officers have worked 19 overdoses since April 10, and they’ve reported six overdose deaths since February. The police department didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment or updated statistics.
However, in a video posted to his Facebook page, Principal Chief Richard Sneed said his administration would be getting tough on drug dealers.
“It’s a never-ending battle. Every time we take a dealer down, every time there’s interdiction, every time there’s a seizure, that supply chain seems to just continue to keep rolling,” the chief said. “Like everyone else, I’m very frustrated.
As he called for increased pressure on dealers, Sneed addressed them directly.
“I understand we have rights, and we’re here to protect people’s rights. But you’re killing our people, and I’m done. I’ve had it," he said. "My message to the dealers is simple. We’re coming for you.”
The chief also called for banishment of tribal members who deal in illegal drugs, something that’s unprecedented for the tribe.
“We have yet to banish a drug dealer who is an enrolled member, and I get it. They’re part of our community, but when you’re selling drugs to our children and you’re killing our family members, you’re not part of our community.”
Vice Chief Alan B. Ensley submitted two pieces of legislation to Tribal Council, one calling for real property forfeiture, the other calling for increased jail time and fines for convictions of high level drug offenses.
“There were several overdoses last night. Our paramedics and EMTs are run ragged,” Ensley said last week.
Both he and the chief have said the tribe is fortunate to have access to Narcan, a drug used to reverse opioid overdoses. “If it wasn’t for Narcan, we’d probably be burying 10 a week.”
Ensley said with the stress that the COVID-19 closures put on the tribe, drug dealers used it as an opportunity and worked around the barriers police put in place to get drugs in.
“I think seizing their property and banishing them is still an option,” he said.
Heroin and opioid addiction hasn’t just strained the tribe’s resources in law enforcement, it has had a medical cost as well.
Vickie Bradley, the tribe’s Public Health and Human Services secretary, said that with opioid addiction comes the burden of disease and infection.
“Anytime someone overdoses, it’s going to be a cost burden,” she said.
Hepatitis C and HIV have been on the rise with the tribe, with users often injecting with used syringes. In an effort to bring those rates down, the tribe has a syringe exchange program, and Bradley says people who use that program are five times more likely to go into recovery programs.
Sheyahshe Littledave, public relations officer for the Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority, said about 200 people sought treatment through the emergency department in 2020.
Littledave said COVID-19 disrupted many of the hospital authority's outpatient treatment programs starting in March, so it quickly implemented telemedicine services.
"As a result, we actually had an increase in total patients served," Littledave said. "Behavioral health served 756 individuals in April.”
Sneed said it’s time for more consequences for dealers who have avoided harsher punishments by keeping quantities below felony levels.
“People are dying. Our community has had it," he said. "This tribe has had it, and we’re going to be taking much more serious action.”