Minnesota's Opioid Epidemic

He sold drugs to his own community; now he fights for redemption

James Cross is a former drug dealer.
James Cross is a former drug dealer who, after more than two decades in and out of jail, has shifted his focus to helping addicts in the community he once sold drugs to.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

From the time they were teens, James Cross and his twin brother, Gerald, robbed drug dealers in the the Twin Cities and drove the drugs up to reservations in northern Minnesota to sell them.

Native American by birth, but adopted by a white family in south Minneapolis, the brothers were popular in certain circles during those trips because they would use the meth, opioid pain pills or weed they were selling alongside their customers.

"We had nine ounces and we'd go up to the rez, and sell maybe four, the rest we'd use — it was party time," James said. "But at the end of the day, you're still at square one, you're trying to make money, but you still ain't. It's a dream on the triple beam."

Native American communities are the hardest-hit racial group in Minnesota's opioid epidemic. Native Americans died of opioid overdoses at a rate nearly five times higher than that of white Minnesotans between 1999 and 2014, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

James spent much of his adult life behind bars and in gangs. He and Gerald had grown up inseparable, even when they got into trouble. Often, they were jailed in the same places, at the same time. After guards at the state prison in Stillwater threatened to move his brother away because they couldn't tell the twins apart, James got tattoos on his face so the two would look different.

In all, James was incarcerated for a total of 22 years.

"Of course, you sell to take care of your habit," James said of selling drugs. "But in the meantime, you ain't thinking that you're destroying your community or your reservations, because that's where we all went and sold our drugs to our people."

As James neared the end of his prison term, he started to reconsider what he'd done with his life, and the sort of legacy his was leaving for his sons.

More stories: Opioid overdose — and the families and friends left behind

"When I was in jail, my family came, my three sons, and it was the hardest thing ever," James said. "That was the first time in my whole life I think that I cried. And It just hit me hard, I'm doing this all for gangs, I'm doing this for street rep, but in the end, no one is there for me except these four people."

James walked out of jail that final time in 2005 committed to breaking the "convict code" he'd lived by from his early teens to his late 30s.

"I started doing my spirituality, started getting involved in trying to show people I'm changing," he said. "It's hard to be Native American in the community and show people you changed because you ruined the community and hurt the community so many times with your actions of criminality or drugs."

James has spent the last decade trying to prove himself, winning over the trust of elders and leaders in the community. At the same time, heroin abuse in Minnesota had begun to skyrocket, especially in Native American communities.

News of overdoses is common in the communities where James has done his work. In just one weekend this month, he heard about ten non-fatal opioid overdoses at Little Earth in south Minneapolis, which is the only Native American-focused housing project in the country.

And in 2013, he lost one of his sons, Mark LaQuier, to a heroin overdose.

"He just got out of treatment, went back to using, and thought he could probably use the same doses as he was using before he went in, and bam," James said. "It happens all the time, and it's an epidemic."

Other members of his family have struggled with drugs as well. Even though James and his twin brother Gerald were together for most of four decades, through gangs and jails, they've recently taken different paths.

Gerald has struggled since being released from jail two years ago. He had trouble finding a job. And he started using more pain pills and heroin.

He confessed to James after his release that he expected to fail a drug test with his parole officer.

"Man, it just almost broke me down," James said.

James worked with his brother, trying to keep him clean, but it didn't stick. It's hard, James said, but he's focused on moving forward and building up his community. He still dreads hearing news of his brother, fearing he could overdose or be sent back to prison.

"I told him, if you get locked up, I feel locked up, you're half of me," James said. "We're really close, and it does hurt."

James helped to start a group called Natives Against Heroin. He runs weekly talking circles in south Minneapolis at Little Earth. He does outreach in the community, connects people with treatment, when possible, and talks to prisoners.

"Dealing with Natives and the trauma and the historical trauma we've been through, I think we need to have our own programs specific for Natives," James said. "Use our culture, use our flute music, use our ... pow wow music, round dance music, use our own theories from our forefathers and our elders."

When he runs into people from his old gang life, James said he tells them the same he would anyone else: "Are you ready to get cleaned up, bro?" If they say they're not, he keeps going, but said he hopes he's leaving some trust behind.

When James is doing outreach at Little Earth for his talking circles, he makes a point of talking to pregnant women who are using heroin about what it could mean for their babies. His granddaughter Ciara was born addicted to heroin three years ago. She's lived most of her life with James and Teresa. Ciara's father is in jail and her mother gave up parental rights.

"She's on a path to heroin and she doesn't want to quit," James said of Ciara's mother. "She's caught up in that street life."

Ciara likes playing on tablet computers or the family's Kindle. She's more shy than James' other grandkids, and was slower to learn things like numbers. But James and Teresa are both quick to point to Ciara's successes like learning the alphabet. And they say she's coming out of her shell.

They're in the process of formally adopting the toddler. James said adopting Ciara is his way of continuing to make amends to the community that he damaged in his younger years.

"It's breaking the cycle," James said. "That's why I took her in."

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