By ROBERT JUMPER
ONE FEATHER EDITOR
Last week, I witnessed a sad scene at the Cherokee Welcome Center. Part of my responsibility these days is to frequent the Center, primarily to see if there is anything Josie and her staff needs to perform their duties of greeting visitors to the area and providing information to those traveling on and through the Qualla Boundary. I am a coffee hound and they always have fresh coffee in the Center, so it is a treat to go spend time with them and have a cup.
The events outside the Center were less pleasant. It seems that several people involved in drug transactions had decided that the Welcome Center parking lot was a good location to set up shop. The Cherokee Police Department disagreed and I, along with several other staff members and visitors to our lands, watched as officers took people into custody who were suspected of dealing drugs; several police cars with blue lights flashing, four or five young people sitting at picnic tables in handcuffs, and an officer with a drug sniffing dog going through a vehicle, all under a sign that reads, “Welcome to Cherokee”.
We have a drug problem on the Boundary. We all know that. Like many parts of America, our community is fighting for the minds and bodies of our children. It has been called a war and it has been called an epidemic. Some say that drug abuse is a sickness. Other people say that drug abuse is a crime. For still other community members, drug abuse defies any definition other than heartbreaking. From the dealers who poison people to the suicidal, sociopathic tendencies of those who are hooked on drugs, we have been very much at a loss on how to handle an ever-growing population of a new drug-dependent community.
Lacking a legitimate, one-size-fits-all solution to the cause and cure for the disease/crime, we build “rehab” centers. It seems to be a “finger-in-the-dyke” measure. The rehab centers currently available on the Boundary have so few beds compared to the need that, even if they are100 percent effective, tens, if not hundreds, of people go without treatment or reduced treatment until space becomes available. And, if you doubt the enormity of the problem, look at the tribal arrest reports. Within that report, you will find, on a weekly basis, on average, 15 to 30 people. Of those, most arrests will have something to do with drugs. The charges will run the range of drug related domestic violence, robbery, and embezzlement, in addition to direct selling and consumption. Many of the people who appear on those pages are repeat offenders; many of them showing up five or more times in the report. One educator reportedly said that they had to stop letting the children at the school read the One Feather for fear of some children seeing their parents in the arrest report.
As to the criminal element of drug abuse and trafficking, we continue to see drug charges “dismissed on plea”. One can only speculate that the courts are so overwhelmed with the volume of cases that they opt to negotiate with the dealers to get an easier, less time consuming, and less costly conviction by allowing the offender a pass on “less serious” offenses, bargaining for surer convictions. The Attorney General once indicated at a public meeting on the drug problem in Cherokee that incarceration was an effective deterrent to drug abuse. I think it could be argued that plea bargaining would be a hindrance to that deterrent effect.
The problem of drug abuse has been going on so long that it has become a source of jokes and means of ridicule. When someone has an idea, or says something thought to be strange or unusual, it is common to hear someone say, “you must be high” or “are you smoking crack?”
If you have ever had a loved one, family or friend, that you have watched deteriorate to the point of death, it is no joking matter to you. If you have had a family member who has stolen from their parents or beaten their grandparents to get “stuff” or money that they can turn into their drug of choice, mindless jokes about drug abuse are a source of pain, not pleasure.
Those folks that chose the Welcome Center parking lot for their drug deal saw a quick response from the Cherokee Police Department, and I am thankful for the men and women who do that work. Many times, they are putting handcuffs on people they know from the community, sometimes their own kin. Talk to the local folks and you will quickly hear that the Welcome Center is not the only favorite drug transaction location in town. The downtown visitor center kiosk and our local grocery store parking lots are mentioned as prime locations for illegal drug transactions. And, if it is happening in those places, you know that there are many more in private residences and back roads near you.
We, as a community, must decide how we will address the problem of drug abuse on our lands. One study suggests that drug abuse stems from a disconnect from family and society, that over time, somehow the abuser has not been nurtured or perceives that they are outcasts. Drug dealers and abusers have their own culture and, to some extend, they feel that they are part of a family. They substitute that relationship for the lack of a real relationship with people that they love and that love them.
Whatever the cause, the effect is broken hearts and lives. We worry about financial and political threats to the fabric of our community. These issues, while important, do not nearly have the destructive power of drug abuse on the Boundary. Law enforcement and leading medical experts need to continue to work together to formulate real strategies for stopping this epidemic. If the Tribe were facing an outbreak of a medical disease that could wipe out a generation of our children, every member of government, our medical experts, our police and emergency services leaders, would be in “contain and destroy” mode. Well, it is here and it is now.
It saddened me to see people, some our own tribal members, sitting in cuffs in front of our Welcome Center. Was it embarrassing to have visitors from all over the region and different states witnessing our people being taking into custody for drugs? Sure, it was. But, the thing that hurt my heart is knowing that if we don’t find an answer to this problem and it continues to grow, instead of police cars in front of the Center, it will be a coroner’s wagon; and instead being in handcuffs, our children will be in body bags.
The police were outside the Welcome Center for over an hour and several people were detained that morning. The staff said that the parking lot was free from drug activity…until the next day.