By James Monteleone
Triplicate Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON is burgeoning among the Yurok tribe, but the amount of money needed to fight the drug epidemic falls short.
While methamphetamine abuse is prevalent throughout the region, years of under-funded police and health services on the reservation have allowed the drug problem to become entrenched in the community, tribal leaders say.
"Our entire community is saturated," said Maria Tripp, the Yurok Tribal Council chairwoman. "There isn't one family that can say they're not affected by meth abuse."
American Indians of Del Norte and Humboldt counties were treated for meth-related ailments in Indian clinics 2,900 times in 2005, the most recent year for which statistics are available nearly 500 cases more than any county in the United States.
Humboldt County ranked fourth for the number of meth encounters, with Del Norte on its heels in fifth nationwide, despite comparatively small American Indian populations. Sonoma and Mendocino counties also were among the top 10.
"I don't think it's hit its peak," Tripp said. "It's still escalating ... Meth has really stumped us."
The problem has strained the understaffed tribal police department.
Federal funding to beef up the police is needed, tribal leaders say, but it wouldn't be enough: Money also is needed to provide health care and social services to those trying to kick the addiction.
About 40 percent of all calls to which tribal officers respond are influenced by meth in some way, said Dave Parris, chief of the Yurok tribal police force.
"There's no way we can fight the crime on methamphetamine when we're just simply trying to stay on top of answering calls for service on a day-to-day basis," Parris said.
Parris, who previously served in the Eureka police department, said the problem is drastically worse in Indian Country because people in the culturally tight-knit communities mind their own business and don't report neighbors for meth violations.
Tribal leaders say it's not just cultural; it's a fear of what happens when the person being reported comes home.
"If taking care of yourself means you gotta turn your head, then that's what you gotta do," said Richard Myers, who represents Pecwan on the Tribal Council.
In the past six months, as much as 30 percent of the tribal police's budget has been redirected to target meth abuse, Parris said, further weakening the department's ability to address other important issues, such as fishing regulation violations.
Congress has just begun to catch on to the problem.
The proposed 2008 budget approved by the House Appropriations Committee Thursday suggests $15 million go to meth-abuse treatment programs through the Indian Health Service and $35 million go to boost tribal law enforcement staffing through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
It is the first time any congressional appropriation for Indians has specifically targeted the meth problem.
As with most budgets pertaining to American Indian tribes, a shortfall remains.
"Chances are the intervention is insufficient to the problem," said James Crouch, director of the California Rural Indian Health Board.
"If you need $1.5 billion to balance the books on regular medical care then $15 million is a spit in the bucket."
If the new funds were to be split evenly among the 2.5 million American Indian population, it would provide the Yurok tribe with just $70,000 for tribal courts and police and $30,000 for health services.
But the funding of national American Indian programs has traditionally worked on a priority system in which the most-densely populated tribes receive funding first, and the money has developed a reputation of falling through the cracks before it reaches California tribes.
If current precedent is followed, the proposed $15 million for meth-abuse treatment would be disbursed under the population density model, which would not necessarily send the money to the regions where it's most needed. But Tribes with dense populations fight the creation of a new Indian Health Service fund method, worrying it could cause them to lose their own piece of the pie.
Indian Health Service recognizes the Pacific Northwest tribes have been the area hardest hit by meth, said June Tracy, an IHS legislative analyst. Despite that fact, she could not specify how much of the budget increase would go to the region.
In 2006, the Bureau of Indian Affairs awarded 25 grants for tribal police to fight meth and domestic abuse through law enforcement, but the Yuroks weren't considered because the tribe failed to submit its annual crime statistics, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Not one of the grants was awarded to a California tribe.
No similar funds were given this year.
"It's very difficult to be able to justify a request from a tribe if there's nothing to back it up," said Chris Chaney, BIA deputy director of justice services.
Chaney said the BIA had not yet determined how it would disburse the new funds, but speculated it would likely be similar to the crime statistic-based awards given in the past.
Even before Congress decided to consider the problem, the Yurok tribe had been seeking grants and other aid to fight meth abuse on its own.
One example is a grant to the California Rural Indian Health Board from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration providing $16.2 million over three years to provide treatment for meth abuse and a rehab program that was once funded by IHS. The SAMHSA funding is scheduled to expire this year.
The tribal police department has been able win some grants to improve the fight, but they have primarily been for equipment. Equipment does little good when you don't have the man-power needed to use it, Parris said.
The department is in the process of applying for a grant that would pay the salary of one additional officer for three years. Parris said just one additional officer would make a tangible difference on a police force with only eight officers.
Separate federal legislation co-sponsored by both Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein would increase the grants available, allowing American Indian tribes to be eligible for programs that fund police training, drug-endangered children's services and assistance for pregnant women on the drug.
The tribe has proposed new solutions that include an anonymous 1-800 number to report offenders to tribal police and an awareness program teaching people how to spot meth users by the damage caused to their teeth. But even simple programs like that require funding. Without grants money has to be taken from other parts of the tribe's shoestring budget.
Bonnie Green, vice-chair of the Tribal Council, said: "We know what we need to do, we've worked on this for a long time. We know the different signs, we know what's happening. But if you don't get the proper funding to carry through with these things, then just moving things isn't going to do it."