Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Effort needed to stem prescription drug abuse in Indian Country

Re-posted from the Billings Gazette
STEVEN JUNEAU, Vice President
Lamar Associates

In the past few years we have witnessed a segment of our tribal population escalate the abuse and diversion (theft and sale) of prescription drugs. Indian Country is experiencing the same impact as other Montana communities. We have our share of doctor shoppers, pill dealers and heartbreaking examples of overdose cases.

As a tribal member who has worked in criminal justice throughout Indian Country, I also have personal examples of loved ones who became addicted to prescription drugs, ended up in prison because of drug-related crimes or destroyed family relationships because of addiction.
Major enemy

Although methamphetamine continues to be a major affliction to our community health, we see the prescription drug abuse as an enemy sneaking up on us. In part, this is because of the misunderstanding about prescription drugs. It is not seriously considered a "drug" because it is prescribed by a doctor. For example, how many occasions can you recall of someone saying: "Take one of these pills, they are for (insert symptom here), I got them from the doctor." Prescription drug abuse is not widely considered to be as "bad" as meth or cocaine.

How serious is the situation? Consider the 2009 National Drug Threat Assessment, which states, "Increasingly, diverted pharmaceuticals pose a greater problem to some Native American communities than methamphetamine." In January, a man driving under the influence of alcohol and prescription drugs crashed his automobile and killed a woman on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. In 2007, the Montana State crime lab attributed 141 deaths to four major prescription painkillers compared with seven attributed to methamphetamine.

Why should this be a concern for us? Aside of the compassion we may have for an addict, we should be concerned because the abuse and diversion affects all of us. When drug abusers and traffickers fill the hospital with fake symptoms, we wait behind them for medical attention. We are affected when doctors are reluctant to prescribe medication to people who actually need them. Prescription abusers are involved in theft, elder abuse and violent crime like other drug abusers.

Our communities and service professionals need swift response in education and prevention to address this growing problem.

We must begin educating our community members about the proper use of prescription drugs and the potential danger of abuse and diversion, as well as basic awareness such as how to dispose of remaining pills. Our service professionals need to better understand methods of pharmaceutical diversion and over-the-counter drug abuse.
Safeguard medications

The old adage "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" certainly proves true with prescription drug abuse and diversion. We all are the first line of defense against abuse and theft by removing easy access and securing medication, and paying attention the signs and symptoms of abuse behavior.

The first step in addressing any community impact issue is to know your opponent and arm yourself with knowledge and resources to combat it. Because our tribal communities are very social and open, we should always apply right-sized prevention and response strategies to pin point the problem.

I hope you will become aware of the growing prescription drug abuse issue, start prevention at home and encourage our service professionals to receive the training they need to respond to this issue.

Steven Juneau of Billings is an enrolled member of the Haida Tlingit Tribe of Alaska who grew up in Browning. To register for tuition-free training online click here. Or contact us at or call 202-543-8181.

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