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Drug Threats in Indian Country

The National Drug Threat Assessment 2009 includes an assessment of drug threats in Indian Country because rising drug trafficking and abuse in Indian Country is a national-level concern, particularly to policymakers, drug treatment providers, and law enforcement executives. Drug trafficking and abuse trends in Indian Country were presented in detail in the NDIC Indian Country Drug Threat Assessment 2008.

The illicit drug threat to Indian Country varies geographically across Native American communities. Overall, marijuana is the most widely available illicit drug on reservations. Ice methamphetamine, powder and crack cocaine, diverted pharmaceuticals, heroin, and MDMA are also available at various levels. Mexican DTOs, the principal wholesale suppliers and producers of most illicit drugs available to reservations throughout Indian Country, pose the greatest organizational threat. Canada-based Asian DTOs also pose a threat by smuggling high-potency Canadian marijuana and MDMA through reservations adjacent to the U.S.-Canada border. Native American DTOs and criminal groups are the principal retail to midlevel distributors of illicit drugs on reservations, typically transporting the drugs to reservations from nearby cities. African American and Caucasian criminal groups also engage in varying levels of drug distribution throughout Indian Country. Additionally, a looming concern on many reservations is the presence of local and national-level street gangs that distribute retail quantities of illicit drugs and become involved in gang-related activities, including violent and property crime on and off reservations. Retail distribution commonly occurs at public venues such as casinos, parking lots, fairs, and social events.

Drug production in Indian Country is limited because of the readily available supplies of illicit drugs typically in cities near reservations, and in the case of reservations bordering Mexico and Canada, because of the supplies of illicit drugs transported through them. However, Mexican DTOs do play a prominent role in producing cannabis at outdoor grow sites in remote locations on reservations, particularly in the Pacific Region. Additionally, African American criminal groups convert powder cocaine to crack cocaine on some reservations, particularly those in the Florida/Caribbean Region.

Most illicit drugs are transported onto reservations by Native American criminal groups or individuals who travel to nearby cities to purchase the illicit drugs and transport them back to the reservations. In some instances distributors who reside on remote reservations travel long distances to obtain drugs for distribution in their home communities. Illicit drugs are regularly transported through reservations that border Canada (St. Regis Mohawk Reservation) and Mexico (Tohono O'odham Reservation) to major drug markets throughout the United States. Most Native American criminal groups transporting illicit drugs to their communities transport the drugs using privately owned vehicles and typically do not use sophisticated concealment methods.

High levels of unemployment and poverty are prevalent throughout Indian Country and contribute to Native American communities' susceptibility to substance abuse and exploitation by drug traffickers. As a result, substance abuse by Native Americans is comparatively higher than abuse by any other population group. American Indians and Alaskan Natives are more likely than any other racial group to report past year drug abuse. While marijuana is the illicit substance most widely abused by American Indians as reported at the time of drug treatment admissions in most regions of the country, nationwide reports of methamphetamine abuse by American Indians at the time of admissions increased more than 60 percent from 2002 through 2006, the most recent years for which data are available (see Table 3 and Table 4). However, the abuse of illicit drugs by American Indians varies regionally, since powder and crack cocaine and, increasingly, diverted pharmaceuticals pose a greater problem to some Native American communities than methamphetamine. Some communities experience heightened heroin and MDMA abuse, but these drugs pose a considerably lower threat overall.

Table 3. Percentage of Primary Illicit Drug Mentions by American Indians at Time of Treatment Admission, 2002-2006

Substance 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006
Marijuana 38.0 38.6 38.2 37.9 37.9
Methamphetamine 12.6 13.6 14.1 15.8 17.4
Cocaine 14.4 16.2 15.3 14.9 14.5
Pharmaceuticals 9.2 10.2 10.6 10.4 7.8
Heroin 6.6 7.3 5.4 5.0 4.7

Source: Treatment Episode Data Set.
Note: Data for Alaska and Hawaii are excluded.

Table 4. Illicit Drug Mentions by American Indians at Time of Treatment Admission, 2002-2006

Substance 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 Percent Change 2002-2006
Cocaine 5,181 5,546 5,671 5,987 6,093 17.6
Heroin 2,375 2,486 2,008 1,985 1,997 -15.9
Marijuana 13,704 13,249 14,168 15,200 15,959 16.5
Methamphetamine 4,550 4,666 5,226 6,347 7,308 60.6
Pharmaceuticals* 3,326 3,513 3,932 4,159 3,294 -1.0

Source: Treatment Episode Data Set.
* Pharmaceutical numbers include individuals reporting abuse of nonprescription methadone, other opiates, other amphetamines, other stimulants, benzodiazepines, other tranquilizers, barbiturates, and other sedatives at time of admission.
Note: Data for Alaska and Hawaii are excluded.

The widespread availability and abuse of drugs coupled with the formidable smuggling, transportation, and distribution of illicit drugs by multiple criminal groups and gangs operating in Indian Country contribute to a wide range of violent and property crime. Drug traffickers engage in these crimes to facilitate their operations, while abusers generally engage in such crimes to support their addiction. Additionally, the abuse of illicit drugs leads to impaired personal behavior that often results in violence and other criminal behavior. This problem is particularly acute in regard to sexual abuse--the crime accounting for the most common criminal offense by Native Americans in Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) custody.

Overall, the drug threat posed to Indian Country is likely to remain relatively unchanged in the near term. Most reservations remain economically depressed and thus lack the resources necessary to affect the overall drug threat they are experiencing. Consequently, as abuse by American Indians continues to rise, drug trafficking networks will continue to foster the availability of illicit drugs.

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