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Killer Crisis: Fight between Mille Lacs County, Ojibwe threatens opioid response

Demonstrators against opioids hold signs at a recent event on the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe reservation in northern Minnesota recently. Photo credit: Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe

BRAINERD, Minn. — The leader of a small tribe of Ojibwe in northern Minnesota thinks an increase in drug overdose deaths is due in part to county officials removing authority from her tribal police.

The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe reservation sits mostly within the geographic boundary of Mille Lacs County, where county officials last year ended a police cooperation agreement. That ended tribal police authority on most parts of the reservation to enforce state laws, such as those dealing with illegal drugs.

"People now show up on our reservation because they believe it is a police-free zone," band Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin told a November rally in support of reservation police at the state Capitol.

The band blames the jurisdiction dispute for a significant drug overdose increase.

"In 2015, we had seven overdoses," Benjamin said via news release. "Since the county revoked the agreement in July 2016, we have had 66 overdoses on the Mille Lacs Reservation, 13 of them fatal."

Despite the involvement of federal and state officials, the two sides could not come to terms.

Benjamin says that the band is "a sovereign, self-governing Indian tribe, (and) we do not negotiate with a gun to our head,"

The band has sued the county in federal court.

According to court documents, Mille Lacs County had the highest crime rate of any Minnesota county in 2015 and 2016, and a "disproportionate amount" of crime occurs within the reservation.

As of December, the number of overdoses had gone up to 73 since the county ended the agreement, according to band officials. About 1,850 band members live on the reservation.

Mille Lacs County Attorney Joe Walsh said the increase in drug-related offenses started between 2014 and 2015, before the cooperative agreement was dissolved.

"Available statistics tend to show that the genesis of increased opioid use in Mille Lacs County occurred in 2015 or before," Walsh said.

Walsh, a defendant in the lawsuit, declined to respond to Benjamin's overdose statistic.

Mille Lacs County Administrator Pat Oman said when the county board unanimously ended its contract with the band that "it is clear that tribal government prioritized tribal law over and above Minnesota law."

Walsh said the county successfully applied for National Drug Court Planning Initiative to implement a diversionary drug court to help drug addicts, but the funding to set up the court was rejected by the Minnesota Legislature.

Benjamin and Rep. Peggy Flanagan, D-St. Louis Park, said the Legislature needs to change state law to help Mille Lacs and other tribes that could face similar situations. The Legislature ot returns to session Feb. 20

Mille Lacs County had an average of 1,124.3 opioid prescriptions per 1,000 residents in 2016, according to the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy, far higher than the statewide numbers.

The county was one of the four highest in the state in admissions for heroin substance use disorder treatment in 2016, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

The Mille Lacs Reservation was the scene of several demonstrations against opioids late in 2017.