Native Americans Struggle With Opioid Epidemic


Wednesday, December 22, 2021 - 6:17am

As the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the U.S., deaths from drug overdoses surged by nearly 30 percent, climbing to a record high. The drug crisis has diversified from an overwhelmingly white affliction to killing people of color with staggering speed. The death rate last year was highest among Native Americans, for whom COVID-19 piled yet more despair on communities already confronting generations of trauma, poverty, unemployment and underfunded health systems, the Associated Press reports. Beyond opioids, people are dying from deadly cocktails of many drugs. Deaths involving methamphetamine have nearly tripled in recent years, with Native Americans 12 times more likely to die from it. Drug dealers now cut nearly every drug on the street with fentanyl, a cheap and deadly synthetic opioid so potent the equivalent of a sugar packet can make 40 doses. 

Unemployment in Indian country surged to twenty six percent. With the federal government’s disinvestment in Native communities, many were already living on the brink of poverty — sometimes just across the street from predominantly white gated communities and summer vacation resorts. Indian health care has been underfunded for decades. When the American government forced Native Americans off their land, it signed treaties with tribes promising to provide for them necessities like health care. The deaths from addiction are proof it’s never kept its word, said Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith. The national average for health care spending is just over $11,000 per person, but tribal health systems receive about a third of that and urban Indian groups even less, according to the National Council of Urban Indian Health. COVID-19 added another blow to this already stressed system. Smith introduced a bill this summer that would provide $200 million to Indian organizations to bolster their mental health and addiction treatment. The bill, stalled in Congress, would empower Native organizations to address addiction their own way.

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