Tribal Governments, Ganja and OxyContin: When Government Says Dope Is "OK"

Gyasi Ross

The United States Food and Drug Association recently approved the use of OxyContin for children as young as 11. Folks say that powerful narcotics like OxyContin are necessary. Maybe? I mean, OxyContin has only been on the market for twenty years and somehow people coped without it. Before that it was simply called “heroin.”

But it begs the question—can something that the human race existed without for millennia really be considered “necessary?”

In any event, the fact is that painkillers are absolutely tearing Native communities up. Kids, of course—they’re the most vulnerable. But moms, dads, aunties, uncles, grandpas and grandmas, Councilpeople and common folks all are affected by prescription pills. I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m pretty sure that every single person who’s reading this story either has been affected by prescription pill addiction or knows of someone who has had a prescription pill addiction. Myself, I currently have folks within my family who are struggling with prescription pill addiction.

Which makes me consider drugs more generally—what message does it send when governments say that drugs are ok?

Sure, we all know that drug use and abuse happens. Yet, when institutions that are entrusted with the protection of a group of people—whether a tribal government, a state government, or the FDA—says that something that has been shown to be harmful is ok, what does that tell its citizens? Serious question—I don’t know the answer. There are some folks who say (and some science that also says) that when you remove the taboo and illegality from drugs, young folks aren’t as intrigued by them. “Legalize it!” they say, and the appeal goes away. And that may actually be true—I’m not sure. I know that the “dry reservation” theory seems to be a failure—maybe that’s true of drug-free reservations. And since those reservations won’t be drug-free, the Tribe may as well make the money for the sale? Something like that.

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Perhaps that’s why the FDA is making OxyContin (essentially heroin in pill form) legal. Perhaps that is why some Tribes are producing and processing today’s legal super-powered weed (60-65% more potent than in the 1970s, according to the University of Mississippi’s Marijuana Potency Project).


Both represent a HUGE deviation from history for both governments. From the United States’ perspective, of course, this is a seismic shift from government that prohibited alcohol for years and pushed the “Reefer Madness” line of paranoid thinking (courtesy of William Randolph Hearst and Harry Anslinger) into public policy. For Tribal governments, where drugs and alcohol have taken a major toll on our communities, this is likewise a momentous shift. I don’t think anyone doubts that Tribes have the right to deal weed—of course they do. Sovereign land. But I think there are many that question the propriety of Tribes dealing weed. To wit, many within my generation grew up looking at “Choose Tradition Not Addiction” posters and thinking that this was the formula for NOT repeating some of the mistakes of previous generations. Many of us likewise remember when Tribes were trying to close down places of ill repute on our reservations instead of opening them up. Many of us believed that it was our duty to honor previous generations by abstaining from alcohol and substances.

It was an important statement for individual Natives who sought to be change agents within Native communities. “Clean and sober.” “Red Road.” All of that. It meant something for a lot of us.

Maybe it doesn’t mean as much now—maybe “clean and sober” isn’t a good goal for Native kids anymore?

Once again, maybe it’s psychological—maybe the FDA and Tribal governments truly believe that by opening up the pandora’s box to every desire and vice, the mystique goes away and that the citizenry will therefore benefit. I honestly don’t know—I hope that our leaders have a plan to deal with the affected folks within our communities. What I do know is that the way that OxyContin and other pain pills have affected our communities makes me suspicious. But maybe legalization is the way ultimately.

Yet, either way, it’s a huge change when the government gets into the drug game. It’s likewise a huge change when the government is the one that says that drugs are cool. Outside of morality or spirituality, it’s 100% certain that we’re entering a new era from how things have always been, especially for Native people. Maybe we’re past the point where we need to encourage tradition and not addiction to Native people and instead folks should make that decision for themselves.

What do you folks think?

Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large
Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories
Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi


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Wayne Joseph Borean
Wayne Joseph Borean
Submitted by Wayne Joseph Borean on
The above assumes that OxyContin is addictive, which it isn't. I've been on and off it a number of times over the last ten years, and have never had withdrawal issues.

SaukFoxGal's picture
Submitted by SaukFoxGal on
When has the government not had its hands in the drug game? They are deeply embedded in it and will always be. I can assure you that decisions made like these are not to benefit us, it is solely for monetary purposes. We are not only in a psychological warfare but a spiritual one as well. Isn't the FDA the same organization that carelessly allows non- GMO labeling on the food we eat? We don't even have the rights to be able to choose if we want to consume genetically engineered "food". They wish to seek control over every aspect of our lives in order to continue with their greedy and disastrous ways of treating this earth. To answer your question I truly believe that many tribal governments have failed its people in order to conform to the outrageous and evil demands in which our government chooses to live by. I do not think that allowing prescription drugs to become the reality of our people in order to heal is the answer. Mother nature provides us with everything that we need in order to care for ourselves and anything outside of that is a threat to our future existence. My family is plagued by alcoholism, drugs and mental illness and the only thing that most people rely on are these drugs that the medical uses simply to profit from us It is literally killing us. Why should we conform to this way of living when our people were fully aware of how to heal ourselves through natural resources that the creator has provided us with? Not to mention that we do not give the body enough credit as we should, it knows how to heal itself with proper care without having to shove pills down our throats.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
Efforts to legislate morality have failed miserable in this country. Prohibition helped bring about the birth of the Mafia and other violent organized crime families. Making Cocaine illegal brought about the Columbian crime syndicates and the associated violence. Making marijuana illegal brought about the power and brutality of the Mexican cartels and made Juarez, Mexico (the gateway into the U.S.) the murder capital of the world. All three of these instances brought with them violent crime, addiction and the resultant broken families and broken promises. Laws (including the Ten Commandments) have NEVER stopped aberrant behavior and there is no reason to believe they are anything but minimally effective. The simple fact is that learning the pitfalls of life begins at home. When children learn to respect their elders they will learn to steer clear of the dangers their parents warn them against. It's also a simple fact that respect must be earned (especially among children) and that too many adults are ill-prepared to earn that respect. Poverty porn has taught us that substance abuse is an inescapable element in the lives of Native Americans, but those of us who try to lead by example are willing to fight the uphill battle. Our lives and the lives of our future generations rely on our determination and resolve.

talyn's picture
Submitted by talyn on
I'm a big fan of Tradition not Addiction. However, as I understand it, the FDA has approved oxycontin for children down to 11, who have a TERMINAL diagnosis. These children are dying. They are suffering. We aren't really worried about addiction. Yes, children, and people of all ages, have been dying in unbearable agony for millennia. But we have the great good fortune that we have found new ways to ameliorate their pain. Yes, having the means I think there is a point that it becomes morally necessary for us to do so. I do not see how condemning children to suffer saves someone else from addiction. For the larger issue of drugs, legalization, and addiction, I don't know the answers either. It does seem to me that branding the addict a criminal and locking them up isn't working that well for us. Maybe legalizing recreational use and treating addiction as a medical problem would be better. And none of this means we have to throw away Tradition not Addiction. We can still advocate for clean and sober even when the drugs are legal, just like we do with alcohol.

TigerBody's picture
Submitted by TigerBody on
It is important to understand that there is OxyContin and then there are entheogens.

txcaddo's picture
Submitted by txcaddo on
I don't think its "tradish" to criticize Creators gifts, maybe acknowledge that you don't understand how the plant works or how it doctors people before just writing it off. Maybe you don't know cannabis will be the new exit therapy for addiction treatment and is saving people from opiate addictions. Maybe you don't think Native children with epilepsy, crohns or cancer could benefit but I would beg to differ. We cannot demonize one plant while saying everything is sacred. Can we please get over the stoner mentality and move on to medicine the way the Creator intended?