The opioid epidemic has certainly not passed North Carolina by, including the people who live on tribal lands in our state. Federal law enforcement agencies are seeking to curtail trafficking in these drugs.
Recently, 76 people were arrested on tribal land west of Asheville. The operation was carried out by an opioid task force comprised of local, tribal, state and federal officers.
The arrests were made on the 56,000-acre reservation occupied by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and in other communities in the area following a weeks-long undercover operation. According to U.S Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, agents seized some 250 pounds of drugs including methamphetamine and heroin estimated to have a street value of $2 million.
If convicted, some of those arrested could spend as long as two decades behind bars, and a few could be sentenced to life in prison. Some of those arrested have been charged with federal crimes including possession with intent to distribute these drugs. Others are facing tribal or local charges.
Earlier this year, a federal official with the Indian Health Service (IHS) told members of Congress that fatal overdoses among Native Americans, as well as Alaska Natives, quintupled between 1999 and 2015. He said that's a greater increase than has been experienced by any other ethnic or racial group.
The principal chief of the tribe impacted by the arrests confirmed that Native American reservations have been significantly impacted by the opioid epidemic. He said, "While this is a national epidemic indeed Indian Country has been hit at a much harder rate." He said he hopes the operation carried out by the task force, which, as noted, included tribal police, "will be a model for Indian Country."
In a press conference held here in North Carolina following the arrests, Secretary Zinke was firm. He stated, "The message is clear. Indian Country is off-limits to drugs. We will find you. We will hunt you down. We will prosecute you."
As law enforcement agencies at all levels work to stem the opioid crisis, those arrested for drug-related crimes can face severe penalties. When multiple people are arrested in one operation, it can be easy for people to end up facing charges for crimes they aren't guilty of. That's why it's essential to have your own attorney to protect your rights and craft your defense strategy.