WASHINGTON — In a hearing Wednesday, Eastern Washington’s top federal prosecutor told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that a recent drug bust by Kalispel Tribal Police underscored how the fentanyl crisis has hit Native communities especially hard.
Vanessa Waldref, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Washington, said the drug overdose death rate among Indigenous people “significantly exceeds” the national average, the result of a complex set of factors.
“Traffickers can produce limitless amounts of illicit fentanyl if they have the appropriate chemicals and equipment, generating an unprecedented health crisis,” Waldref said. “Fentanyl overdoses are the leading cause of opioid-related deaths throughout the United States. American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians are on the front lines of the fentanyl epidemic.”
Kalispel Tribal Police seized 18,000 fentanyl pills in the parking lot of Northern Quest Resort & Casino during an alleged drug deal on Nov. 29, according to police. Federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement seized more than 100 pounds of drugs they said were bound for the Colville Reservation in August, including 161,000 fentanyl pills.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat who has made the impact of fentanyl on Native Americans a priority and asked the panel she previously led to hold the hearing, said Congress needs to give more resources and authority to tribal law police, improve coordination with other law enforcement agencies and get better data on the fentanyl crisis.
“Make no mistake about it: The fentanyl crisis is a flood of poison entering Indian Country and communities,” Cantwell said. “And it is not a crisis that our tribes can face alone.”
Wednesday’s hearing, focused on what the federal government can do better to help tribes tackle the crisis, followed a Nov. 8 hearing in the same committee that aimed to define the problem.
Glen Melville, a Makah tribal member and deputy director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Office of Justice Services, said it is well known among Mexican drug cartels that reservations are ideal places for drug traffickers to set up their operations because of the limited jurisdiction and resources of tribal police.
“There’s a tragic disparity,” said Adam Cohen, deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. “Overdose deaths continue to climb among Native communities even as the number of overdose deaths nationally levels off.”
Cantwell has introduced legislation — backed by Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, in the House — that would help tribal police hire and retain officers. She also called for Congress to approve President Joe Biden’s supplemental funding request, which includes $1.6 billion for opioid treatment and prevention.