Cherokee Nation opens Harm Reduction Program in Tahlequah

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — The Cherokee Nation is opening a new Harm Reduction Program to address the opioid epidemic within the reservation.

The tribe received a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) grant to start a harm reduction program that offers syringe services to reduce drug use and prevent the transmission of blood-borne infections.

Through Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. and Deputy Principal Chief Bryan Warner’s Public Health and Wellness Fund Act and the grant, about $3 million has been delegated to open the facility.

Tribe officials have toured similar facilities in Washington and North Carolina where they have noticed a decrease in Hepatitis C rates and drug overdoses.

“In our Cherokee culture, we work together as a community for all our fellow citizens in need. We should not fail to acknowledge the impact that addiction has. We can help our fellow citizens improve health outcomes and help with healing from opioids and other drugs that have impacted our tribe and families,” Hoskin said. “This new harm-reduction program, in addition to the range of other recovery-oriented programs within Behavioral Health that we have started expanding, can address the complexities of drug addiction among our Native people and provide meaningful resources that can having a lasting impact.”

Nearly one-third of the state’s opioid distribution in recent years went into Cherokee Nation communities. This has caused generational health issues within the tribe.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Oklahoma has one of the highest Hepatitis C prevalence rates in the U.S. at 56 percent.

Cherokee Nation was among 22 programs out of more than 440 offered the grant needed for the harm reduction facility.

“We are so fortunate to have been awarded the SAMHSA Harm Reduction Grant, the first of its kind which will allow us to provide a holistic continuum of care for Native Americans and any member of the public suffering from substance use disorders,” Cherokee Nation Behavioral Health Senior Director Juli Skinner said.

The Cherokee Nation Harm Reduction Program is now open in Tahlequah from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

The program will be open to tribal citizens and the public in need. It will provide sterile syringes to participants who wish to remain anonymous, as well.

Clients can bring in used syringes and replace them with sterile syringes, receive fentanyl test strips, Narcan nasal spray, HIV and Hepatitis C rapid tests, recovery support, referrals and basic clothing and hygiene kits.

According to the CDC, the syringe services are used to stop the spread of viral hepatitis and HIV and does not cause an increase in illegal drug use or crime rates.

“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. 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,” Director of Infectious Diseases Dr. Jorge Mera said.

This program will also provide safe needle disposal to reduce the amount of discarded needles in the community.

“Cherokee Nation holds all our citizens sacred,” Warner said. “Our citizens, Natives within our Reservation and any member of the public that needs this service can now walk in and seek and receive services without experiencing any stigma associated with mental health and addiction.”

For more information on the Cherokee Nation Harm Reduction Program, call 539-234-3785; or for other Cherokee Nation Behavioral Health needs, call 539-234-3500.

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