“The problem is now extending down into the lower age groups and grade school kids. They are getting drugs from relatives – brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles.”

Synthetic Pot, Bath Salts and Gangs Have Native Community in Crisis

Brenda Austin
August 21, 2013


In the five months since the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians (Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin) declared a state of emergency on their reservation due to increased violence, crime and drug induced medical emergencies, not much has changed – or everything is getting better – depending on who you talk to.

The state of emergency was declared March 29 to address synthetic and prescription drug trafficking in the reservation community. According to the tribe’s Chief of Police Bob Brandenburg, there has been a big spike in burglaries and thefts, which during 2012 led to an increase of 64 percent in crimes and related emergencies.

Brandenburg said he is mainly concerned about synthetic cannabis (also referred to as spice) and prescription drug use, although he is gearing up for what may be their next big battle – bath salts. “Bath salts” contain synthetic chemicals that are similar to amphetamine and most of the chemicals used to make them are illegal. “A lot of our kids and adults doing synthetic drugs are acting similar to people in the 70s on PCP; they are aggressive, have psychosis and hallucinations that make them very dangerous,” Brandenburg said. “The problem is now extending down into the lower age groups and grade school kids. They are getting drugs from relatives – brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles.”

In addition to problems on the reservation, tribal police officers are overworked and underpaid, according to Brandenburg. “I feel we never have enough staff for the number of calls we service,” he said. “We run about 5,000 calls each year, which is a lot for our size community.” There are about 3,000 tribal members living on the reservation year round – with a big influx during the summer months.

Brandenburg said the department has a large turnover rate because tribal police officers are worked harder compared to officers in surrounding communities. “They could go to another community or the county Sheriff’s department and handle a lot less calls for service each year per officer. It would probably be a little better pay with a state retirement and a lot less work. A lot of officers will get experience here and then get picked up by another department,” he said.

To make matters even worse, Brandenburg says there are at least two gangs now making their home on the reservation. “We have the Sovereign Nation Warriors and also within the past four or five years have been seeing a lot of Native Soldiers gang affiliates in our area,” he said. “We have strengthened our gang ordinance to try and combat that and have targeted some of the leaders – they gain their money and influence by selling drugs, including synthetics, which are real prevalent in our Native Soldier gang members.”

Community member Chris Fralick, 34, has a different view of what’s going on. An admitted occasional synthetic drug user himself, Fralick said he has noticed a shift in people’s attitudes and what they are doing with their lives. “We had some issues here but for the most part it was highly common to what other communities experience – the problem just kind of cured itself with a little help,” he said.

Fralick also disagrees with Brandenburg over gangs on the reservation. “There are no real gangs on this reservation,” he said. “Some of them might identify themselves by wearing different colors and stuff, but that’s not uncommon in Indian cultures. They are just a group of friends that hang out and do their own thing. Just kids being kids – just because they are wearing different colored shirts it’s being called a gang problem.”

Brandenburg said they get differing reports of the number of gang members on the reservation. “When we pick people up we hear anywhere from 200-300 Native Soldier gang members and I think that number is probably inflated,” he said. “But we still think there is a significant number of youth involved in the Native Soldier gang ranging in age from junior high to mid to late 20s.”

The suicide rate on the reservation has increased and residential calls for ambulance service for kids and adults having seizures from taking synthetics has also increased. “We had one adult who was about 28 that we had to hook up to our AED machine and bring him back. They took him to the hospital and he lived, but a week later they were hauling him in again for the same thing,” Brandenburg said. “It’s really amazing how badly they want to get at this stuff.”

Brandenburg admits that enforcement has been a problem. “We make the arrests and issue citations or take them to jail and process them – but we have had difficulty until recently trying to get the state court system to charge for synthetics,” he said. “One reason is they change the chemical makeup of the drug so often that as soon as one chemical makeup is made illegal they change some of the molecules in it and make it a different substance. We have been running the possession cases through tribal court under the abuse of a hazardous material law.”

One of the problems the state was having was getting the drugs tested. Drugs were being sent to a lab in Ohio because they were unable to have them tested at their local crime lab. Also, the district attorney’s hands were financially tied according to Brandenburg, because he didn’t have the budget to bring a laboratory tech from Ohio up to testify in their state court. Brandenburg said he believes those problems may be solved now however, because they are now able to get the drugs tested instate.

Even though Fralick previously stated he believes the drug problem on the reservation has “just kind of cured itself with a little help,” he also believes the tribe’s state of emergency was necessary. “This is an ongoing problem,” he said. “It’s not something to be taken lightly. I can see that things are better and the process has started.”

According to Fralick, the very first hit of synthetic cannabis will enslave you. “It is so strong and scary and you don’t want it but you know you are going to go back and have some more,” he said. “I have watched a lot of people’s lungs bleeding and people coughing up cups and cups of yellow foam – enough to fill a whole pitcher. This isn’t a problem you can escape by leaving our town, synthetic marijuana and dangerous drugs are in every community,” he said. But he stands by his belief that, “It may still be happening, but to such a small degree that it is barely noticeable.”

Law enforcement, with tribal councils backing, is taking steps to try and break the cycle of illegal drugs and the abuse of synthetic and prescription meds on the reservation. Tribal programs are coming together in an effort to educate the community, grandparents are taking classes about synthetic and prescription drug abuse to become aware of what is going on in their community and what may be happening with their grandkids. They are also learning what kind of behaviors they should be looking for that might indicate drug problems. “I think with the state of emergency everybody was worried about Marshal law and people losing their constitutional rights, but I think what it actually did was bring a lot of our programs together working for one goal and it has made the community more aware of the problem,” Brandenburg said. “If people are distributing drugs in the community they are looking at punitive punishments within our court system, in addition to the possibility of that person losing their per-capita payments and being dis-enrolled or banished.”

Although Brandenburg doesn’t believe banishment is necessarily a good thing, he said historically that has been something tribes have done. “I think that sometimes there has to be something punitive for there to be a deterrent. Housing is doing evictions. Do I like to see people get kicked out of their homes? No,” he said. “I am hoping they don’t have to do those things very often and that this is a wake up call and will get people going in for help. I think the tribe doesn’t want to do those things, but they need to have it on the table.”

The tribe has also recently established their own tribal drug court and has had help from state and county law enforcement with drug investigations, educational classes on synthetic drugs and enforcement on the reservation itself.

Fralick said he believes that between half to 85 percent of the people that were previously using synthetics on the reservation have stopped. He says that is partially due to some of the head shops closing, but also the fact that people wanted to quit. “Before the state of emergency ever came to mind, everybody – every single one of them – had told me they wanted to quit,” he said.

“You never know walking into a situation how you are going to walk out,” Fralick said.