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Drug Curse: KBIC addresses epidemic

BARAGA – Responding to the late-August traffic accident that killed two Beartown firefighters in which drug use was a factor, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community addressed the national drug epidemic that has taken root in the area.

“We just lost two people because of a wreck,” KBIC President Chris Swartz said at Friday’s Tribal Council meeting, referring to the Minnesota highway accident, after which a firefighter driving admitted to using drugs. “We need help from the outside. Teach the young. The sky’s the limit” if everyone works together, he said.

The council decided to begin by revitalizing its drug task force, after hearing from Police Chief Duane Misegan about some of the difficulties the police department experiences handling drug cases on the reservation.

“We can all help fight this,” Misegan said, suggesting the council consider amping up youth education and amending the tribal code to distinguish between buyers and sellers.

“I don’t know what drugs are out there,” said Vice-President Jennifer Misegan, Duane’s wife. “I don’t know what to look for. Those are things we could be teaching the average person.”

In addition, Duane asked the council to strengthen the tribal code regarding drug crimes.

“The council could help make the penalties stronger,” he said. “Also, current law doesn’t distinguish among types of drugs or number of offenses. These are just ideas.”

Re-establishing the drug task force is the tribe’s first step in addressing the issues raised at the meeting.

“This is an ongoing effort,” said Swartz. “Every year we have speakers on this. We’ve been trying to raise awareness. Obviously it’s a huge problem. I know it’s all over (the area),” he said.

“Every day we see it,” said tribal attorney and prosecutor Danielle Webb, adding the court would have more leeway if the code were amended as Misegan requested, and include a potential term of banishment as a deterrent to drug sellers on the reservation.

The tribe has operated a drug treatment center and halfway house for many years and is building a place for long-term treatment to help those who overcome addictions to rebuild their lives before rejoining society.

“Most of them have to want to recover,” Councilman Gary Loonsfoot Sr. said.

Swartz said the tribe will reactivate its drug hotline and set up an online site for tips.

“We’re 10 percent of the population,” Swartz said. “The non-Indian sector has got to get involved.”

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