Cherokee Nation program will help fight addiction in Northeast Oklahoma
Oklahoma has one of the highest hepatitis C virus rates in the country.
That's one of the reasons why the Cherokee Nation is gearing up a new harm reduction program in Tahlequah.
Even though Cherokee citizens make up only 6% of Oklahoma's population, a third of the opioids distributed throughout the state went to Cherokee communities, causing health and addiction issues throughout the reservation.
The Cherokee Nation received one of the largest settlements from the opioid industry – $75 million. The case was filed in federal court in 2017 and alleged that opioid-related overdoses more than doubled within the Cherokee Nation from 2003-2014.
Cherokee Nation was one of 22 programs and the only tribal nation to receive a federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration grant last year to start a program offering clean syringes to reduce the transmission of blood-borne pathogens like HIV and Hepatitis C. The tribal nation will receive $3 million dollars to start the program. The program comes after Cherokee Nation health officials studied other harm reduction programs on tribal lands in North Carolina and Washington.
A 2021 law paved the way for more harm reduction programs in Oklahoma. Harm reduction includes getting rapid tests for HIV and Hep C, exchanging used syringes for clean ones and receiving Narcan nasal spray as part of the program, or even picking up clothing and other hygiene supplies if needed.
Some of these techniques — like needle exchanges — can be controversial. But, evidence shows they don’t increase illegal drug use or crime.
“I have been working on the Cherokee Nation Hepatitis C Virus elimination program for seven years and have learned that without harm reduction it is impossible to eliminate HCV," said Dr. Jorge Mera, Cherokee Nation's director of infectious diseases program.
"When I was told that the Cherokee Nation was developing a harm-reduction syringe services program, I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe now we can really eliminate HCV from our communities,” he said.
Cherokee Nation health officials say more than 800 million milligrams of opioids were distributed in 14 counties in the reservation’s boundaries. That’s the equivalent of 42 pills for every resident in those counties, and officials say the oversupply and resulting addictions created a significant burden on the nation's healthcare system.
The harm reduction program is now open in Tahlequah for both tribal and non-tribal citizens in need.
In addition to opening the harm reduction program to combat the effects of the opioid crisis, Cherokee Nation officials want to invest $100 million dollars for new addiction treatment facilities and programs, a scholarship and other initiatives. That money would come via new legislation and an amendment to the tribal nation's 2021 Public Health and Wellness Act.
The $85 million in settlement funds from Cherokee Nation's opioid and e-cigarette lawsuits will be used to pay for the investments. The tribal nation settled with Juul last year over the company's role in youth vaping.
For more information on the Cherokee Nation Harm Reduction Program, call 539-234-3785.
The Cherokee Nation Harm Reduction Program at 214 N. Bliss Avenue in Tahlequah is now open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday to tribal citizens and the public in need. It will provide sterile syringes to participants, who can remain anonymous.