'Justice and accountability': Amid deadly fentanyl epidemic more federal resources are coming to Red Lake

Feb. 7—RED LAKE — In an effort to combat the fentanyl and opioid epidemic affecting Indigenous communities in the state, Red Lake tribal leaders met with members of the U.S. Attorney's Office on Monday to discuss how federal resources can help support the mission.

Red Lake Nation has been working on response efforts to the epidemic for years, and in 2021, the Red Lake Department of Public Safety and the court system formed a team to help educate members about the harmful opioids, specifically fentanyl, that are being brought into Red Lake.

For U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger, providing the community with access to federal resources can help build upon the work already being done.

"We have been in communication with Red Lake leadership about ways to improve our prosecutions at Red Lake, primarily with respect to fentanyl dealing and overdoses, but on other crimes as well," Luger said.

One plan recently made between tribal leaders and the U.S. Attorney's Office is to bring leading drug prosecutors from Minneapolis to Red Lake for training and discussions with law enforcement.

Along with holding training sessions, Luger said prosecutors within the U.S. Attorney's Office, particularly the drug unit, will be forming a group that will be traveling to Red Lake on a regular basis to work with tribal leaders, law enforcement, Federal Bureau of Investigation officials and task forces to address the fentanyl problem.

Bringing publicity to Red Lake drug cases prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office is another important factor when it comes to reducing the sale of fentanyl, Luger said, as it sends a powerful message to dealers.

"We believe based on the work we're doing around the state that not only bringing cases, but publicizing those cases, making it known — here at Red Lake, but also to fentanyl dealers around the state — that they're not welcome here, that their drugs are not welcome here, and that if they try to sell their fentanyl here they are going to be met with swift and severe consequences," he said.

Luger explained that most of the fentanyl found in Red Lake Nation originates from other parts of the state or country. The opiate is easier to transport across borders than other drugs, and dealers target "vulnerable populations," which have historically included Indigenous communities.

"Red Lake doesn't make fentanyl — the poison that is addicting people here and killing people here doesn't come from here," he said. "We need to stop it from coming here by working against the drug dealers who are bringing it and selling it. One way to do that is to highlight the cases that we bring and the stiff federal penalties that follow for fentanyl dealing, not only in Red Lake but around the state."

For Luger, putting an end to the fentanyl epidemic begins with it figuring out how drugs are getting to Red Lake. He referenced the 2015 indictment of 41 dealers who were part of the Beasley organization, a multi-state drug trafficking ring that targeted Red Lake for the sale of heroin.

"We prosecuted every member of the Beasley organization in a federal case and that reduced the amount of heroin that was coming in," Luger explained. "We're going back to that model of looking at who's bringing (fentanyl) in and how we can build those cases."

A large barrier the Red Lake Nation faces when it comes to prosecuting opioid dealers is the issue of jurisdiction. Red Lake Tribal Chairman Darrell Seki Sr. noted the importance of working on future laws that would make it possible to prosecute non-member drug dealers in the Red Lake Nation.

"We would like the U.S. Attorney's Office to support our efforts to have congress enact an Oliphant fix which allows us to prosecute the non-members that commit serious drug crimes against our communities," Seki said, referencing Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe (1978), where the U.S. Supreme Court determined that tribal governments don't have the authority to prosecute non-members, even when a crime is committed on tribal land.

"It is very important that we have the ability to prosecute the people who are directly endangering our community," Seki said. "It is outrageous for federal authorities to threaten tribal leaders with federal obstruction of justice charges when we temporarily incarcerate the non-members who are bringing the dangerous drugs to our communities."

The impact of the fentanyl epidemic on the Red Lake community has been tremendous and the area is seeing the effects more than ever before.

In January, the Red Lake Police Department seized 122 grams of fentanyl along with more than $20,000 in cash during a traffic stop. Two men from Detroit, Mich., were also

recently sentenced to prison

for their roles in a fentanyl trafficking operation targeting the Red Lake Nation.

Along with more fentanyl being seized in the area, overdoses have also increased.

One tool that has helped the community prevent overdoses is the distribution of naloxone, often known by the brand name Narcan, a medication used to quickly reverse or reduce the effects of opioids.

"For several years in Red Lake, Narcan has been used heavily by law enforcement, medical personnel, even by the family members of opiate and fentanyl users," Seki said. "As a first line of defense to overcome the immediate effects of opiate overdose, Narcan has saved many lives at Red Lake because of the immediate and fast-acting response to the impacts of drug overdoses."

The downside of this overdose-reversing drug, though, is that it can give opiate users a false sense of security.

"Some users see no reason to stop using opiates and fentanyl because Narcan is so readily available," Seki explained. "As a result, we have expanded our response to overdoses to include new strategies to get drug users into treatment."

Providing drug treatment resources to the community is the highest priority, Seki expressed, and is far more important than locking up drug users.

"Our primary strategy is to fix the problem that leads our members to drug use instead of rushing to prosecute the drug users," Seki said. "We developed an inpatient drug center in Ponemah known as the Obaashing Treatment Center where we have used our cultural teachers to educate drug users on the consequences of drug use and overall health."

Red Lake Tribal Secretary Sam Strong noted that taking advantage of federal and tribal resources can help get fentanyl off the streets and get drug users into treatment centers.

"It's also important to highlight the good things," Strong said. "We have a great chemical health program, and we have a law enforcement-assisted diversion program to help those addicts get off drugs as opposed to continuing the cycle of recidivism and addiction."

Strong also expressed his hope that working alongside the U.S. Attorney's Office to combat the fentanyl epidemic in the Red Lake Nation can provide a brighter future for the community.

"We're hopeful for a future where there is justice and accountability here in Red Lake," Strong said. "I'm hopeful for a future where we don't have to see our brothers and sisters in coffins, where we don't have to see our mothers and fathers and children being impacted by this horrible drug epidemic."