Lakota Country Times: Pine Ridge mother leads fight against meth

Last month, Julie Richards inspected a suspected methamphetamine lab in a home on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Photo courtesy Julie Richards

Lakota people battle methamphetamines
By: Natalie Hand
Lakota Country Times Correspondent

PINE RIDGE — A late night knock at the door is something that Julie Richards is used to. 

A mother to many Oglala youth who have nowhere else to go, Richards has had her share of late night visits from needy young people but one recent encounter shook her to the core. Just a couple weeks ago Richards came face to face with the demon she’s fighting — Meth.

One late night visit from a young nephew, who was pleading with her to come out and go for a ride with him has opened Richards eyes to the perils of addiction.  When she refused, he pointed a gun in her face and began questioning her about the work she is doing to stop meth use on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

“He got agitated when I refused to go with him.  He was paranoid and wanted to know if I was going to turn him over to the Feds.  I assured him that I don’t work with the Feds and that I want to get help for those caught up in addiction. Luckily, he believed me and left.” stated Richards.

Pine Ridge is home to nearly 25,000 citizens of the Oglala Lakota nation but the arrival of one of the most addictive substance known to man has the community worried and ready to take action.

Richards, 43, is a mother of four and has three grandchildren. She says that she began to see a change in her oldest daughter three years ago.  She began stealing, was paranoid and would be gone for weeks at a time, leaving her young children in the care of her mother and grandmother.

“We caught my daughter and her boyfriend smoking meth one day. After first, I was in denial.  I wanted to believe that it was a one-time thing. But my denial only made it worse.” added Richards.

On the Pine Ridge reservation, many families don’t want to discuss their relative’s addiction to meth as it’s viewed as a shameful drug amongst the people.

 “A long time ago, if somebody did wrong in the camp, they were publicly shamed and dealt with right away.  We need to bring back traditional law to deal with these predators.” added Richards.

Julie Richards, left, is leading a campaign against methamphetamine abuse on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Photo courtesy Julie Richards

One Woman Campaign
“I felt so helpless, watching my daughter destroy herself.  She was spiraling out of control.  There was nowhere to get her the help she needed.  So three years ago, I started the “Mothers Against Meth” program.  I spend a lot of my time doing research on the way meth is made and the effects it has on the body, mind and spirit.” noted Richards.

Richards created a Facebook page to raise awareness.  “The page serves not only as a sounding board for other parents and family members seeking support, but is a call to action for communities to rise up and expose meth dealers.”

According to Richards, on any given night, she leads a patrol through the streets of Pine Ridge Village.  If weather permits, it’s a foot patrol.  Sometimes alone or with a few relatives, the patrol focuses on neighborhoods where there is suspected drug activity.  Richards’ goal is to help young people who need a place to go and want to get off meth.

Richards and others have grown frustrated with the lack of support from law enforcement to stop the flow of meth to the reservation. 

Oglala Sioux Tribe’s Department of Public Safety is severely understaffed to adequately cover the reservation that is the size of Connecticut.  The Bureau of Indian Affairs Division of Drug Enforcement has a Resident Agent in Charge (RAC) for Pine Ridge.  RAC Algin Young is based out of Rapid City, SD and did not return calls at press time.

Oglala Sioux Tribe Department of Public Safety’s Adult Offenders Facility is being inundated with meth users coming into the jail.

“I have worked in Corrections for ten years.  In the last year, we have seen a significant increase in the number of prisoners that are on meth.  On average, we book five or more meth users per week now.” stated Sgt. Rhonda Talbot, OST DPS Lead Corrections Officer.

“The crimes against our women and children are becoming more intense and much more violent in recent years due to the meth use.” Noted Norma Rendon, Director of Oglala Sioux Tribe’s Victims Services Program.

Rapid City, SD, the nearest city to the reservation, has seen a steady rise in violent crimes due to meth use, according to the Rapid City Police Department 2015 crime statistics report.  Murders are up 75% since 2014.

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Cheap High
“Meth” is a nickname for the stimulant known as Methamphetamine.  It is derived, in large part, from a key ingredient found in over-the-counter cold/allergy medication known as “pseudoephedrine”.  Other ingredients include isopropyl alcohol (or Iso-Heet Fuel Treatment), methyl alcohol, lithium, and chloroform.  These ingredients are easily found in the form of drain cleaner, fertilizer, batteries and match sticks.

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration website, Mexican drug trafficking organizations have become the primary manufacturers and distributors of methamphetamine to cities throughout the United States, including in Hawaii. Domestic clandestine laboratory operators also produce and distribute meth but usually on a smaller scale. 

The Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 requires retailers of non-prescription products containing pseudoephedrine, ephedrine, or phenylpropanolamine to place these products behind the counter or in a locked cabinet. Consumers must show identification and sign a logbook for each purchase. Pine Ridge has seen very little enforcement of the laws and have no comprehensive plan for attacking

In economically poor communities like Pine Ridge, meth is favored because it its cheap.  Typically, a “hit” of meth equates to a quarter of a gram and sells for approximately $20.

However, meth knows no socio-economic boundaries and is pandemic problem throughout the United States.  In October, 2015, the Oglala Sioux Tribe passed Ordinance #15-19, which levies heavier punishment for “dangerous drug offenses”.  Tribal members convicted of possessing, manufacturing or distributing illegal controlled substances can be “immediately excluded, dis-enrolled and/or banished for life from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.”

Cause and Affect
Meth has been around for over 100 years.  The U.S. Federal Government used it during World War II to keep combat soldiers alert.  Eventually, it became more widely available to the general public. 

In a recent study conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, this synthetic drug, which increases the amount of the neurotransmitter dopamine, is taken orally, smoked, snorted, or dissolved in water or alcohol and injected. Smoking or injecting the drug delivers it very quickly to the brain, where it produces an immediate, intense euphoria. Because the pleasure also fades quickly, users often take repeated doses, in a “binge and crash” pattern.

“When users first start taking meth, they’ll snort it.  It’s hard to detect at first.  But eventually, they need a faster rush so they’ll smoke it and eventually inject it.  Once a user starts smoking or injecting meth, you can smell a strong chemical odor on them.  It smells like Draino or cat urine.  Another key sign is that a meth user will stay up for days at a time,” stated Richards.

Physical signs of chronic Meth use include: significant weight loss; rotting teeth (“meth mouth”); skin sores; rapid jaw movement; anxiety; confusion; paranoia; insomnia; and homicidal/suicidal tendencies.

“When an offender is brought in for booking, we observe their behavior.  If we determine that they are on meth, we refuse to book them until they get medical clearance.  They are often given a shot of Ativan to calm them.  These offenders have to be segregated for at least 72 hours because of their erratic behavior and because their emitting chemicals from their pores which can contaminate other prisoners,” added Sgt. Talbot. 

After the prisoner is released from the jail, officials note that entire cell has to be wiped down with laundry soap and water to prevent the chemical compounds in meth leave a lasting imprint on their victims, but the collateral damage is high as well.  Children in meth homes are chronically ill with colds, respiratory infections and other complications.  The chemicals penetrate clothing, furniture, and dry wall in homes and continue to affect innocent victims even after the drug use stops in that home.

Rick Two Dogs, a respected spiritual interpreter from the Oglala Sioux Tribe, sees methamphetamine as a dark cloud over the nation.

Reclaiming Their Spirit
The long term use of this drug takes its toll on the body, mind and spirit of its victims. Using brain-imaging techniques, scientists have discovered that the brains of former chronic users show a significant decrease in the number of dopamine transporters, a crucial component of a functional dopamine system.

Scientists performed brain scans on 15 detoxified, former meth users and found a 24-percent loss in the normal number of dopamine transporters. This loss of transporters was linked to slowness in motor skills and poorer performance on verbal and memory tasks.

Unlike heroin addicts, who can be weaned off the substance with methadone, there are no pharmacological treatments for meth. The only currently available treatment is behavioral therapy.  Long term treatment is the most effective method to help an addict stay clean.

“It’s like a bad spirit.  Everything has a spirit, a Nagi, including alcohol, weed, and meth. I believe this new drug (meth) and suicide go hand in hand.  The great Holy Man, Hehaka Sapa (Black Elk) foresaw this time in our lives as a huge black cloud covering the people.  In his vison he saw that our salvation would be to return to the traditional teachings. A belief in our Lakota world view is when we stayed near the inipi (seat lodge) and cannupa (sacred pipe_ there were a lot of old men and women,” stated Rick Two Dogs, a Oglala Lakota elder and spiritual leader amongst the Oglala.

According to Richards, traditional teachings have saved her life and have also allowed her to focus on her future generation’s well-being.  She says she is no stranger to addiction.  She’s an adult child of an alcoholic and has battled lengthy cocaine and alcohol addictions.  However, according to Richards, she turned to her traditional teachings seven years ago and vowed that she would never touch alcohol and drugs again. 

“My oldest daughter is in jail now.  It is hard on her children.  They miss her.  But we sleep at night knowing that she is safe.  I pray that she stays in there long enough for the meth to get out of her system,” added Richards.

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