Fear of losing heritage drives Cherokee Nation opioid case

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TAHLEQUAH, Okla. (AP) — Cherokee Nation officials say fear of losing the tribe's heritage is driving a lawsuit alleging distributors and retailers of prescribed medications have contributed to opioid abuse within the tribe.

Opioid use is so prevalent among members of the Oklahoma-based tribe that 70 percent of Cherokee foster children in Oklahoma have been placed in the homes of non-Indians, The New York Times reported Sunday.

"We have addicted mothers and fathers who don't give a damn about what their children will carry on," said tribal Attorney General Todd Hembree, a descendant of a revered 19th-century chief. "They can't care for themselves, much less anything else. We are losing a generation of our continuity."

Attorneys for the tribe say the lawsuit seeks to make the companies accountable for creating an oversupply of the drugs.

The lawsuit against big opioid distributor is similar to those filed by authorities in dozens of cities, counties and states, including New Jersey, Ohio and Oklahoma itself. Attorneys general from 41 states recently joined forces to investigate similar options.

The tribal lawsuit, filed in Cherokee Nation District Court in April, argues that pharmacy chains as well as giant drug distributors flouted federal drug-monitoring laws and allowed prescription opioids to pour into the Cherokee territory in northeastern Oklahoma at some of the highest rates in the country. Such neglect, Hembree claims, amounts to exploitation of a people.

The companies have responded by asking a federal judge to deny the tribe's authority to bring the case. They argue that a tribe cannot sue them in tribal court, much less enforce federal drug laws.

Hembree argues that over a five-year period, drug distributors ignored red flags and allowed alarming quantities of prescription opioids. In 2015 and in 2016, 184 million pain pills poured into the region, he said.

A ruling on the companies' request is expected soon and, regardless of the outcome, will almost certainly be appealed.

"They know Native Americans have higher rates of addiction," Hembree said.

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