In order to comprehend the significance of this victory, it is vital to first understand the gravity of the problem. Beginning in the late 1990s, pharmaceutical companies downplayed the addictive nature of opioid pain relievers and encouraged the medical community to prescribe them at greater rates. The result has been widespread misuse of both prescription and non-prescription opioids. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency.
Between the years 2016 and 2019, HHS provided $9 billion in grants to states, tribes, and local communities to battle this emergency. However, a 2018 report by Altarum, a nonprofit health research and consulting institute, stated that “the cost of the country’s opioid crisis is estimated to have exceeded $1 trillion from 2001 to 2017, and is projected to cost an additional $500 billion by 2020.”
Altarum’s predictions were right on track, as drug overdose deaths in the U.S. rose nearly 30 percent in 2020, according to preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More recent provisional data from CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics indicate that there were an estimated 100,306 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. during the 12-month period ending in April 2021, an increase of 28.5% from the 78,056 deaths during the same period the year before.
As grave as these statistics are, the reality is far graver for Native Americans. The Washington Post reported in 2020 that “nationwide, from 2006 to 2014, Native Americans were nearly 50 percent more likely to die of an opioid overdose than non-natives.” Overdoses and deaths have led to a cascade of social problems in Tribal communities, overwhelming medical, social services, law enforcement and foster-care systems.