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Fighting Meth Plague With Native Pride

By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
          What do you picture when you think about a typical methamphetamine user? Is it a skeezy trailer tableau with a white guy cooking it up in the kitchen? A scene straight out of "Breaking Bad"?
        It might surprise you — but it won't surprise anyone who lives in Indian country or works in law enforcement there — that American Indians use meth at a higher rate than anyone else in the nation.
        American Indians between 18 and 25 (the core meth user age group) use meth at a rate twice that of non-Indians.
        "There's no place that gets ravaged more than tribal lands," Gil Kerlikowske, the nation's drug czar, said in Albuquerque on Wednesday as he rolled out a TV and radio public service campaign aimed at convincing tribal youths that using meth runs counter to Native pride.
        He's got that right. Kerlikowske points to poverty, isolation and sparse law enforcement as conditions that make Indian reservations ripe for cooking, selling and using meth.
        Alvin Warren, a native of Santa Clara Pueblo and New Mexico's secretary of Indian affairs, goes deeper to explain high usage rates for meth (and alcohol and pot and all the other popular numbing agents) among Native Americans.
        "We have to look at what's at the root cause," Warren told me. And he ticked them off: Historical trauma. Loss of language and culture. Lack of educational opportunity. Lack of employment.
        "I don't think we appreciate sometimes how hopeless things can be for a particular youth who may be confronted by alcohol and substance abuse in their family, not really feeling like they have much in the way of educational or job opportunities and then this person comes to you and says, 'This is something that will make you feel good.' We can't just keep telling kids no."
        Meth is cheap, often as easy to obtain as booze, and it gives a sharp, long-lasting high. It's also one of the more addicting stimulants and one that ravages the body.
        Five years ago, I spent some cold January days on the Navajo reservation reporting a story on the fast and furious spread of meth use there. It had come on like gangbusters, leading to especially violent crimes and dumbfounding parents and grandparents who were finding little packets of white powder in their teens' backpacks.
        Back then, I talked to the head of security for the large Window Rock school system and he told me, "In all my years in law enforcement I've never seen a drug come into an area like this and just take over."
        Five years later, federal agents on the Arizona side of the Navajo Nation just broke up what they called the largest meth network on the reservation, arresting 16 people.
        Larry Echohawk, the Department of Interior deputy secretary for Indian affairs, said in Albuquerque on Wednesday that 30 drug officers had been added to Indian country in the past two years and that six additional drug agents are planned. But, Echohawk said, "We're not going to arrest ourselves out of a problem like this."
        New Mexico sits at No. 20 in the nation for meth lab seizures. The district attorney in Bernalillo County, who runs a four-prosecutor team that specializes in meth crimes, saw the annual caseload go from 221 cases in 2006 to 669 last year.
        So it shouldn't be a surprise that meth manufacture and use has spread to pueblos and reservations here.
        In the 2008 National Survey of Drug Use and Health, about one-half of 1 percent of Anglo and Hispanic 18- to 25-year-olds reported using meth; the number climbed to 1.2 percent for Indians.
        In the 2005 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 14 percent of Native American high school students reported they had tried meth.
        Kerlikowske made a refreshing admission when he spoke in Albuquerque. He said the nation's "war on drugs" wasn't the best approach to the public safety and public health challenges of illegal drug use.
        And he acknowledged that it would be naive to believe young Indian people would be persuaded to stay away from meth by a finger-wagging Uncle Sam.
        That's why the feds' new $1.5 million television campaign takes the different tack of celebrating Native culture and defining it as stronger and more positive than the lure of meth.
        If you're young and you live on a pueblo or reservation, opportunities can seem limited, and it's easy to see what you don't have, not all the things you do. The campaign, which will run in the 15 states with the highest Native American populations, promotes the notion that there's plenty to be proud of in Native America.
        Kids are shown fishing, camping and playing the run-and-gun style of basketball known as rezball. They talk about doing beadwork, drum-making, competing in rodeo, making frybread and learning creation stories.
        The tagline is, "There are a lot of cool things about being Native. Meth isn't one of them."
        UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Reach Leslie at 823-3914 or llinthicum@abqjournal.com.

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