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Mille Lacs Band urges lawmakers to increase state support to combat opioids

Gathered in a ballroom in the Grand Casino Mille Lacs Convention Center, state lawmakers and a delegation from the Department of Health and Human Services convened to address the opioid epidemic in central Minnesota, particularly for Native American communities. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch1 / 3
During the hearing Friday, the Health and Human Service Policy Committee -- chaired by state Rep. Rena Moran (center, microphone) -- heard testimonies from a number of Mille Lacs Band officials, health and social workers, and law enforcement regarding the opioid epidemic. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch2 / 3
Chief Executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, Melanie Benjamin (right) addresses state lawmakers during a hearing Friday, Jan. 25, at the Grand Casino Mille Lacs Convention Center, Onamia. Next to her, Colin Cash, a leader of Sober Squad, waits to speak. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch3 / 3

ONAMIA—"If this was Plymouth, this would be a national tragedy."

So said Bradley Harrington, the natural resources commissioner for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, of a wave of drug overdoses experienced by his community.

Harrington—along with a host of tribal officials, health care and social workers, as well as representatives of the justice system—testified during a hearing before the Minnesota House Health and Human Services Policy Committee Friday, Jan. 25. Members of the committee, joined by a few state senators and a delegation from the Minnesota Department of Human Services, convened at the Grand Casino Mille Lacs Convention Center in Onamia.

The subject of the hearing? The opioid epidemic—a nationwide scourge of substance abuse that claimed roughly 72,000 lives in 2017, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. According to tribal social workers who testified, while Native Americans number 1.1 percent of Minnesota's population, they account for the highest rates of opioid abuse and opioid addiction-related issues in the state.

Or, to put the situation in localized terms, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe—a community of 4,600 to 4,700 people—weathered a stretch between July 2016 and September 2018 with 107 documented overdoses, Mille Lacs Band Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin said. During the year prior to July 2016, there were seven overdoses, she added.

"Today, it is opioids that claim the most victims," Benjamin told the committee in her opening remarks. "It not only destroys the lives of the user, it also destroys the lives of the family."

Why July 2016? Because that's when Mille Lacs County revoked a 20-year law enforcement agreement authorizing tribal police to enforce state and federal laws, Benjamin said—a decision, she noted, that rendered tribal police largely powerless and turned the Mille Lacs Ojibwe community into a "police-free zone" vulnerable to gangs, rampant criminality and the illicit drug trade.

The agreement was restored in September. Since that time, there have been 17 overdoses, said Benjamin, though overdoses are only one manifestation of societal damage inflicted by widespread and rampant drug abuse. Members of the community also pointed to grassroots efforts by the band as evidence of their initiative to combat the problem internally.

"When we didn't have that, our police were handcuffed—they were not allowed to do their jobs," Benjamin said. "You can imagine the impact it had on our community."

There are other factors at work, Benjamin noted—a long and ongoing struggle for a community in which vital social services, education resources, treatment centers and law enforcement are all understaffed and underfunded, to say little of how these amenities are spread too thin for the band that predominantly works and lives in three locations 60 to 90 miles apart.

"It's not waiting for the if, it's waiting for the when something bad happens," said Sheldon Boyd, secretary treasurer for the band. "We used to hear the old guys talk about the fires that came through and kill people over time. It was disease and then alcohol years ago, now the fire for people in this age are very powerful drugs."

In her address, Benjamin touched upon increased transparency for drug sales by local pharmacies and crackdowns on predatory practices by pharmaceuticals and health care providers, increased funding for addiction education, prevention and treatment, as well as a smarter, more proactive approach to combating opioid abuse based on genetics.

In short, it represents a more cooperative relationship with the state, she said, but one that doesn't put Native Americans on the sidelines as they've been in the past, nor one that infringes on families and tribal autonomy—two community pillars they'll need to lean on during years of healing to come. In particular, testifiers warned forcing tribes to compete for grants will inevitably leave smaller Native American communities without help.

"I'm afraid of losing the authenticity of the grassroots piece. We all contribute ... it's part ownership, this is ours," said Colin Cash, a leader of Sober Squad—a volunteer effort with a proven track record combating opioid addiction through support groups and other forms of positive social change. "My fear is, if you start pouring support into it, does it start to lose that authentic grassroots component to where it's part of everybody's journey? I don't want to lose the buy-in, the integrity."