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American Indian Communities Face Meth Crisis


U.S. law enforcement considers methamphetamine the nation's number one drug problem. More than 12 million Americans have tried meth and 1.5 million are regular users. American Indian leaders say their communities have been especially hard hit by meth addiction.

"My people are in pain and are suffering from meth," Kathleen Wesley-Kitcheyan told the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. The chairwoman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, a community of 13,000 in Arizona said methamphetamine is "shattering families, endangering children and threatening the tribe's spiritual and cultural lives." It was impossible for her to get through her testimony without breaking into tears.

She told of babies born addicted to meth: one with a deformed heart and congenital health problems, another "with legs that are numb and can never be used."

"At the end of '05," Wesley-Kitcheyan said, "a nine-year-old meth user was brought to the San Carlos hospital with hallucinations and violent behavior. This is the youngest user that we have found, but we are concerned that kids even younger are using meth."

In her testimony, Wesley-Kitcheyan also told of a meth-addicted mother who stabbed her child to death, because she thought he was the devil; and a young man who tried to commit suicide by stabbing himself.

He was not the only one. On the San Carlos Reservation, where there were 101 suicide attempts in 2004, eight of the ten individuals who most recently attempted suicide were using meth.

There are similar stories from Native communities across the United States. In fact, meth addiction has hit American Indians, proportionately, harder than almost any other group: 1.7 percent of the Native population has used methamphetamine compared to less than one percent of whites, Hispanics, Asians or blacks

Meth has even become a problem in Native Alaskan villages. "I've always liked to think that we are far enough away, we are remote, we are inaccessible, we have geographic challenges that make certain aspects of commerce next to impossible in my communities," Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski said during the hearings on Capitol Hill. "You know what? Even with those challenges, something like meth gets in and it starts to take out our villages. We're seeing it up in Barrow, the furthest north community."

To deal with what many are calling a crisis in Indian country, tribal leaders are seeking more money for treatment programs, which are grossly inadequate and often hours away from Indian communities; as well as for education and prevention programs; and law enforcement, which is feeling the strain. Bureau of

"We have one third or one half compared to rural law enforcement in America in terms of police resources," Indian Affairs Director Pat Ragsdale told Senators, adding that "the vast territories that Indian police officers have to cover makes it more difficult."

Nevertheless, arrests are being made. Last month, a multi-agency federal, state and Chickasaw tribal drug task force busted one of the largest methamphetamine rings operating in Oklahoma and Texas.

After listening to the testimony, committee vice chairman Byron Dorgan announced that legislation would be introduced making tribes eligible for federal grants -- currently available only to state and local governments -- to help combat the meth crisis.

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