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Rural America can’t escape drug problems

There’s fresh evidence of how drugs have infested rural American, specifically rural North Dakota and South Dakota.

Three Native American tribes from the Dakotas have sued major opioid manufacturers and distributors, alleging they are at fault for a drug epidemic that has had terrible results for tribal members.

And 75 percent of farmers and farm workers surveyed for an online study say they are or have been directly impacted by opioid abuse, compared to less than half of all rural residents. Thirty-one percent of all survey respondents said they know rural communities are affected most by the opioid crisis.

The lawsuit has to wind its way through the courts so no fault has been proven yet. The case reflects the growing concern about opioid use and the availability of drugs. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe and the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate accuse 24 opioid industry defendants of fraudulently concealing and minimizing the addiction risk of prescription opioids. The tribes also argue the defendants didn’t comply with federal prescription drug laws intended to prevent diversion of opioids and prevent their abuse.

There have been national reports of over-prescription of opioids resulting in addiction. Companies have been accused of ignoring warning signs that some doctors and medical facilities have been ordering more opioids than they should need.

The tribes have hired two former federal prosecutors to argue their case. Former North Dakota U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon and former South Dakota U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson are handling the lawsuit. They now head the American Indian Law and Policy Group for the national firm Robins Kaplan. Purdon and Johnson add credibility to the case.

The lawsuit cites the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as saying one in 10 Native Americans used prescription opioids for nonmedical purposes in 2012, compared with 1 in 20 whites. In South Dakota in 2015-16, Native Americans represented 17.8 percent of opioid use deaths and 28 percent of patients treated for opioid use, while making up about 9 percent of the state's population. The Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate reservation straddles the South Dakota-North Dakota border.

In the online study, 27 percent who responded indicated they knew someone who is or has been addicted to opioids or prescription painkillers; 25 percent reported they have a family member who is or has been addicted to the substances; 10 percent said they have taken an opioid or prescription painkiller without a prescription; and 16 percent admitted they have abused or been addicted to the substances.

The American Farm Bureau Foundation and National Farmers Union, which worked together on the study, have launched a campaign called Farm Town Strong. The campaign seeks to raise awareness of the opioid crisis's impact on farming communities and to provide resources in fighting the drug problem. The campaign's website,, will offer information and resources on the issue.

The lawsuit and study show that rural America isn’t immune from the drug problems that plague urban areas. North Dakota’s oil boom drew a criminal element, including drug dealers, into the state. Add to that, part of the opioid crisis can be traced to people who were prescribed opioids and became addicted. If the drug problem can spead into rural America no one is safe from the potential problems created by drugs.

The Farm Bureau and Farmers Union are setting a positive tone with their campaign. They are fighting back. The tribes with the lawsuit also are trying to get control of the situation. Cynics might argue the tribes are just after a monetary settlement. It’s more than money. They have limited resources and if they are to effectively fight the drug problems they will need financial and professional assistance.

It’s good that rural America is acknowledging its drug problem. It’s even better that rural America is looking for ways to combat the invasion of drugs.


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