A town-hall meeting Thursday night drew about 100 people to the Church of Gichitwaa Kateri in Minneapolis to discuss the devastating effects of heroin on the American Indian community.
Many audience members were affiliated with the Little Earth housing complex in Minneapolis, which has lost six people to heroin overdoses over the past six months.
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek asked those in attendance to raise their hands if they had been directly affected by the issue of addiction. More than two-thirds of the audience indicated they had.
"I've met too many moms and too many dads who have buried their children because of this poison. It doesn't know any boundaries," Stanek said.
The meeting was especially timely in the wake of Thursday's announcement by U.S. Attorney Andy Luger that 41 people had been indicted in an interstate drug trafficking conspiracy that distributed heroin, methamphetamine and prescription drugs across the Upper Midwest and to the remote Red Lake and White Earth reservations in Minnesota.
Although the heroin epidemic has affected all demographics across the country, tribal members say Indians have been among the hardest hit. Representatives from law enforcement, health care and the Indian community came together Thursday to collaborate on the issue.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who was part of the eight-person panel, said the law views users and addicts separately — and sentences them accordingly.
"There's a difference between a user who has an addiction problem and a dealer who has an addiction of greed," said Freeman, who urged families to provide community impact statements and report what they see.
Panel member Gerald Cross was emotional as he talked about his personal battle with heroin addiction and incarceration. After spending his childhood in foster homes, Cross said he started getting in trouble with the law at age 11. Before long he and his friends started using narcotics.
"First it was fun doing it. Then we needed it," said Cross, between tears. "It was like we were just empty. Drugs made us feel better."
Aida Strom, an advocate for Indian patients at Hennepin County Medical Center, said she's seen a spike in the number of babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) from mothers addicted to opioids during pregnancy.
Reservations, given their autonomy from outside law enforcement and remote locations, can be the "ideal place to go" for drug traffickers and other dealers. And with residents who are largely impoverished, many are like "a gated community of poor people," Strom said.
Nationally, heroin use is on the rise and causing more overdose deaths than at any time in the past decade, according to the National Heroin Threat Assessment released last week by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Deaths involving heroin more than tripled between 2007 and 2013, from 2,402 to 8,260.