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Tribe pushes hard against pain pills

Illegal and prescription drug abuse has been a problem on the White Earth Reservation for quite some time. Tribal officials are now cracking down on this issue that's been causing deaths and family turmoil for years.

"It has just been increasingly worse and worse and worse," said White Earth Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor.

As a result, the tribal council declared a public health emergency that directs all agencies and departments to make this problem their top priority. The White Earth health and police departments are two of the agencies involved in the proclamation.

"We cannot tolerate the devastation that's happening to our communities or the tribe," Vizenor said, adding that White Earth sees two to three deaths a week from overdosing and unintentional and intentional suicide.

Although the Public Health Proclamation will crack down on illegal drug distribution, Vizenor said it's not meant to be punitive, but rather, supportive.

"We're not there to punish the people with any kind of incarceration or arrests, we are there to help," she said. "We're there to address an issue that is affecting the quality of life."

However, the White Earth Police Department will continue to work with state and federal agencies to eliminate prescription drug abuse happening on the reservation.

According to the White Earth Police Department, 70 to 75 percent of the drug problems on the reservation are the result of prescription medication abuse.

White Earth Health Director Monte Fox said many communities are struggling with prescription drug abuse, including metro areas. Since there's a lot of movement between the reservation and the Twin Cities, the problem seems to migrate to the White Earth Reservation.

"Maybe that exemplifies the problem that we're having," he said.

In addition to the existing substance abuse, chemical dependency and mental health support programs that tribal officials have established, the proclamation will get more communities involved in voicing their concerns.

Public meetings in White Earth, Pine Point and Naytahwaush have already addressed the problem. The next meeting will be held at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 15 at the Rice Lake Community Center, where the council and the substance abuse collaboration will hear ideas and input from the public.

"I've always thought that a community-based intervention is one of the most powerful programs that we can make to combat the issue," Fox said.

He added that the Minnesota Prescription Monitoring Program, enacted by the legislature in 2010, has helped pharmacies track prescription drug abuse. Now it's time to work more locally.

"The government wants to concentrate more on our (tribal) nation now," Fox said. "It's just been hurting too many families and we need to get a hold of it."