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Drug Market On The Rise In Western Alaska

Black and white photo of prescription drugs falling out of bottle
Prescription drugs spilled out. Photo by ajay_suresh is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Nome’s Western Alaska Alcohol and Narcotics Team (WAANT) had success in 2020 stemming the flow of illegal distribution of illicit drugs into the region. However, larger challenges remain in addressing substance abuse in Western Alaska.

In less than two weeks, the WAANT task force successfully seized 7 grams of heroin and 54.2 grams of methamphetamine before it could be distributed in Norton Sound communities. The first seizure occurred on October 29th, 2020 and resulted in the arrest of eight individuals. The second happened on November 9th, 2020 at the Anchorage Airport where investigators made one arrest and acquired 54.2 grams of methamphetamine

The two incidents are not directly connected, but are part of the task force’s on-going investigation into the sale and distribution of meth and heroin that began in January of last year.

Captain Andrew Gorn, the commander of Alaska Bureau of Investigation of Statewide Drug Enforcement for Alaska State Troopers (AST), speaks to what he believes has been essential for WAANT’s successful operations and will be in its continued work.

“If we don’t have support of a community, what are we? We have to have it to do the job right. Otherwise we’re coming into a community, we’re doing what the letter of the law says, and we’re immediately leaving. There needs to be a step in there where there is some time of relationship built and trust built.”

– Captain Andrew Gorn

According to WAANT, within the last 10 years the Western Alaska region has seen an increase in distribution of methamphetamine and heroin. AST’s Gorn recognizes that this increase in drugs in the region is not solely a law enforcement issue.

“Well I guess the main problem for illegal alcohol [and drug] enforcement is the market; the challenge has been persistent for 50 years. As long as there’s a need and a desire in the community for drugs, people are going to try to get them there, and that is just the fact of the matter.”

Lance Johnson is Norton Sound Health Corporation’s (NSHC) Behavioral Health Services (BHS) administrative director. He agrees that there has been an increase of substances coming into the region, but Johnson goes further by identifying some of the root causes for the drug market in Western Alaska.

“We’re a trauma rich region. We have a lot of historical trauma, intergenerational trauma that plays into the mental health needs we see in the region. Of course, we have mental health needs that aren’t related to that as well, but there are a lot of deep-rooted mental health needs out there because of the colonization and everything else. That doesn’t go away quickly by any means.”

– Lance Johnson

Johnson believes that trauma is among the underlying issues, like limited housing and employment, that lead to someone’s deteriorating mental health and drug addiction. But so far, Johnson says behavioral health has not received the support it needs.

“Behavioral health [has] not stood up very well throughout the country.  You hear more and more talk about it, but then there is no funding put behind it. There are no resources, it’s just kind of swept aside and shown it’s not as important as it really is.”

Johnson points out that the community’s investment in behavioral health, in concert with a trusting relationship with law enforcement like WAANT, could begin building a brighter future. And perhaps that start is occurring in Nome as BHS’s new Wellness Center is scheduled to kick off operations in mid-May with more intensive treatment opportunities.

For someone needing behavioral health services, they should call 443-3344 Monday through Friday 8am to 5pm. During after hours, weekends, and holidays call the Nurse Triage Line at 443-6411 for any crises.

Image at top: Pharmaceutical drugs spilled out on a table. Photo Credit: Pixabay

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