Tribal Leaders Warn Biden’s Menthol Ban Will Only Further Empower Cartels (Media Share)

This is a media share from a story in the National Review published November 14, 2023. To read the original article on their website click the below link:

Original Article from National Review:

November 14, 2023 1:30 PM

The Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana has been hard hit by an underlying drug presence that leaders say the tribe “can’t even touch.”

Marvin Weatherwax, the chairman of the Coalition of Large Tribes (COLT) and a member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council in the Blackfeet Nation in Montana, told National Review that one of his nieces was asked by cartel members if they could stay at her house in exchange for drugs and money. She agreed and turned the house over to the cartel, which turned the home into a meth lab, he said. The home is one of more than 100 houses on the reservation that are unlivable because they need to be cleaned up, he said.

“We could get rid of the small dealers, but more and more dealers come up,” he said.

Now, Weatherwax and other tribal leaders are sounding alarms about the Biden administration’s proposed ban on the manufacture and sale of menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, which critics warn could be a boon to the cartels that already run rampant on tribal lands.

The cartels have a “big presence” in his community, where tribal police don’t have authority over nonmembers.

“They pretty much feel unmatchable; they’re just brazen, out in the open,” he said. “It’s almost like it’s raining fentanyl on our community.”

“So if they’re able to sell those illegal menthol cigarettes on our reservation, I’m sure more of our people are going to die over drug overdoses because this is another vehicle for them to addict people,” said Weatherwax, who is also a Montana state representative.

Pete Forcelli, a retired deputy assistant director at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and former NYPD officer, previously warned that a ban could have unintended consequences on crime.

He said organized-crime groups use money made from selling cigarettes to fund other things such as gun smuggling, drug smuggling, human trafficking, and other operations. Some illicit-tobacco trade has been traced back to terror groups like Hezbollah.

The ban would create a new market for illicit tobacco smugglers, he warned.  “I know the cartels would capitalize on being able to smuggle mentholated cigarettes into the U.S.”

The FDA has touted the ban as having the “potential to significantly reduce disease and death from combusted tobacco product use” by “reducing youth experimentation and addiction and increasing the number of smokers that quit.”

“The proposed rules would help prevent children from becoming the next generation of smokers and help adult smokers quit,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra previously  said. “Additionally, the proposed rules represent an important step to advance health equity by significantly reducing tobacco-related health disparities.”

As National Review previously reported, opponents warn that a ban would have a number of unintended consequences, including increasing interactions between black Americans and police and supercharging the illicit drug market.

The proposal has drawn criticism from groups and individuals across the political spectrum, including activists in law enforcement, drug policy, and criminal-justice reform who argue that the ban would discriminate against black Americans, as nearly 85 percent of black smokers consume menthol products, according to the FDA. Just 30 percent of white smokers use menthol products, which account for roughly one-third of all cigarette sales nationwide.

More recently, COLT, which represents the large land-based tribes, released a statement echoing concerns shared by several U.S. senators about the proposed rule. COLT, which represents more than 50 tribes with reservations of 100,000 acres or more, says it is concerned about “potentially creating opportunities for foreign cartels to profit from illegal tobacco on the black market.”

OJ Semans, COLT executive director and a career law-enforcement officer, says policing is already woefully underfunded and understaffed on Native American reservations, and police are already restricted in certain jurisdictions where they do not have authority over non-Native Americans, and therefore have to rely on city and state enforcement.

“The cartel’s already there, and if we make the menthol illegal, the cartel is just going to bring another product out of their belt, and we don’t know whether or not the cigarettes [that would be produced by the cartel] are actually safe,” he said.

He said the Blackfeet Nation is “basically saturated with the cartel.”

The lack of law enforcement makes it difficult to curtail the cartels already, “and if they were able to bring in another product that is a lot easier to smuggle, you are basically opening up the door, endangering more and more and more Native lives.”

“It’s just so dangerous that the FDA, which is supposed to worry about the value of human life, is going ahead with a proposal and not even consulting with the tribes,” he added.

“They’re actually putting thousands and thousands of Native Americans in danger because they were too lazy to actually get input on the rules and regulations.”

He said if the rule takes effect, the administration must work with Congress to increase funding for law enforcement throughout tribal lands.

Both Semans and Weatherwax warned that the FDA rule could be an economic blow to reservations, particularly ones that produce tobacco.

Semans offered advice to the administration: “They should just put it on hold, redo the consultation with tribes, and this time actually put a little heart in it so the tribes know what this is all about.”

He said COLT tried to meet with the administration but was told they were already too late, that hearings had already concluded.

Weatherwax, meanwhile, warned that the policy could be a “gateway to more drugs, more addiction.”

“It wasn’t a good idea in Canada, and it’s not a good idea now,” he said.

Massachusetts, which instituted a first-in-the-nation ban on sales of flavored tobacco in 2019, is contending with a growing illicit-tobacco market. As such, the state’s tobacco task force has recommendedcriminalizing possession of menthol cigarettes. This despite advocates for the bans claiming they would never criminalize individual use or possession.

A similar ban took effect in California in December, and the Golden State is now faced with tobacco companies trying to evade the ban by selling cigarettes that mimic menthol.

Diane Goldstein, a 22-year veteran of law enforcement who has served as the executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership since 2021, previously questioned why the government is giving law enforcement “one more public-health issue to solve, because we’re never going to be able to fix it.”

As bans are put into place at the state and local levels, “it’s going to be one more unmandated fiscal burden placed onto law enforcement,” she told National Review back in May.

“We are talking about deregulating a substance and giving it over to bad actors,” she added. “This is no different than what our drug policy has done with the issue of fentanyl. Every time we prohibit substances and we don’t treat them like a public-health issue, bad actors — drug-trafficking organizations, cartels, other criminals — use that in order to distribute products that are going to be unsafe, unregulated, and it’s going to create violence.”

She went on to say that while the FDA has said it’s not going to make it illegal for consumers to possess the outlawed tobacco, the situation in Massachusetts offers evidence that a ban can quickly end in criminal penalties for people who possess or distribute banned products.

Resources will be pulled from the local, state, and federal levels to battle a new illicit market that will grow, she predicted.

Cochise County, Ariz., sheriff Mark Dannels predicted the policy would “have a major impact on not only my agency, but law enforcement around the U.S. and the communities we serve, because it will create a new and massive illicit market in the very products the FDA is seeking to eliminate.”

“With financial incentives this powerful, the question isn’t whether an illicit market for flavored tobacco will rise, but just how big it will be,” he wrote in an opinion essay for AZCentral.

He cited a 2018 report from the U.S. State Department that “carefully detailed the many layers of serious crime that illicit tobacco trafficking is associated with, including violent crimes, property crimes, human trafficking and terrorism.”

Several Republican senators have spoken out against the proposed rule as well, including Senator Marco Rubio, who called the ban “a reminder that criminal gangs in Mexico are seeking to exploit black-market opportunities” and Thom Tillis, who warned that the “ridiculous ban on menthols will have wide-ranging consequences, including providing cartels with another opportunity to profit from our porous border.”

Send a tip to the news team at NR.




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