Cherokee Nation Fights Oklahoma's Opioid Crisis

Tuesday, October 17th 2017, 10:33 pm
By: Amy Avery

The Cherokee Nation is fighting a tough legal battle with drug retailers across the nation.

The nation said the retailers — who they're suing — are fueling a big opioid problem on tribal land.

There are 37,000 people in Cherokee County and last year 4.8 million opioid pills were shipped into the county.

That's one of the many reasons that the attorney general of Cherokee Nation wants to put a stop to the growing problem affecting many Cherokee families in Oklahoma. 

Caleb Gritts, of Tahlequah, was involved in a car crash in high school and was prescribed opioids for the pain. Years later, he still couldn't stop taking them.

"It just kind of went from every other weekend to every weekend and pretty soon I was spending every bit of my paycheck on it," Gritts said.

Gritts is one of the many people in Cherokee County who has suffered from opioid addiction because pills are so readily available.

"We have certain doctors that over-prescribe. We have retailers that are filling those prescriptions knowing that they are fraudulent," said Todd Hembree, Cherokee Nation attorney general. 

Hembree has been fighting major drug distribution companies like CVS and Walgreens who fill opioid prescriptions through out the U.S. 

"We want to change the behavior of the retailers and distributors, and the manufacturers to stop what is literally an onslaught or flood of opioids into the Cherokee Nation," Hembree said.

Hembree said they started to notice a problem when children were being surrendered by parents who were addicted to opioids and that's when they started to investigate how many pills were being poured into Cherokee County. They wondered why the drug companies weren't doing anything to stop it.

"The Controlled Substance Act requires the distributors to flag distributions to an area they know is suspect and we are asking retailers to do the same thing," Hembree said.

The Cherokee Nation is urging a federal judge to allow this case to be heard in tribal court, but the retailers want to keep it in federal court.

"Our court system is very sophisticated. Absolute total due process will be given, and our rules and laws are set up just like any state court any federal court. They will get a fair shake in tribal court," Hembree said.

This case could impact Cherokees for years to come. 

"There's an entire generation of Cherokees at stake here and that's why we are going to win this lawsuit," Hembree said.

 Hembree said they hope to have a resolution from the federal injunction by the end of the month.

They said they hope to have this case tried in tribal court in Tahlequah within the next year.