U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told tribal leaders in the Phoenix area on Monday that federal law enforcement will work with them to fight distribution of opioid drugs in Indian country.
Zinke said law enforcement officers from the Bureau of Land Management and the Drug Enforcement Administration can help tribal police fight the scourge that has proved especially devastating to native communities.
"Native Americans in particular have seen a steady increase in overdose deaths, more than any other group," Zinke said after meeting with the leaders during a visit to the new youth facility of the Salt River-Pima Maricopa Indian Community in Scottsdale. "So it's time not to talk, but to do."
Zinke was flanked by tribal leaders during a media briefing.
"We welcome the opportunity to be a partner in this issue that affects all of Indian Country," said Delbert Ray Sr., president of the Salt River community.
Dr. Michael Toedt, the Indian Health Service's chief medical officer, told a congressional panel last week that American Indians and Alaska Natives saw a fivefold increase in overdose deaths between 1999 and 2015.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures indicate the increase in that period was higher for Native Americans than any other group, jumping to roughly 22 deaths for every 100,000 people in metropolitan areas and nearly 20 for every 100,000 people in non-metropolitan areas.
But Toedt said the statistics might be more staggering because death certificates often list the wrong race.
When going after drug traffickers, federal law enforcement officials will respect the sovereignty of tribal lands and coordinate with native leaders to determine "the threshold for prosecution" of those arrested in Indian country, Zinke said during his visit. "It's important that we act as one."
President Donald Trump unveiled his plan for combating the opioid crisis earlier Monday, calling for stiffer penalties for drug traffickers, including the death penalty.