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Meth rising: Bakken a new market for organized drug crime

Meth in the Bakken (Stock photo)

By Nadya Faulx / Forum News Service

It’s been referred to as the most significant drug threat facing the state, the dark side of the oil boom, an unwanted side effect of the sudden arrival of people to the Bakken, and with them, money.

After several years of intense crackdowns from both a state and federal level, methamphetamine is on the rise in western North Dakota, and law enforcement and local treatment resources have struggled to keep up with the drug’s steady proliferation through Oil Patch communities.

Meth-related arrests in Dickinson are up almost tenfold from just five years ago, from six in 2010 to 68 in 2014; Stark County has seen a dramatic rise in meth-related charges, from 24 in 2010 to about 150 in 2014, according to court records.

The first three months of 2015 alone have already brought close to 40 meth charges in Stark County, from possession of paraphernalia to intent to deliver. A couple in February was arrested and charged with conspiracy to manufacture the drug after a Southwest Narcotics Task Force bust found them with ingredients used to make meth in their hotel room in Dickinson, echoing the details of a similar hotel meth lab bust last June. Two South Heart adults were arrested on multiple felony charges after they allegedly ingested meth while caring for a child under six years old.

The problem isn’t confined to any one area either. A traffic stop last month in Berthold netted 11 pounds of meth, one of the largest seizures in the state’s history. North Dakota Highway Patrol stopped a driver near Williston who was allegedly in possession of meth paraphernalia and more than half a pound of the drug, carrying a street value of roughly $45,000.

The problem has received national attention, enough that the Obama administration’s drug czar highlighted the “emerging threat” of drug trafficking in the region in the government’s updated drug strategy unveiled last year.

“There was a big increase in meth with the last oil boom we had,” Dickinson Police Capt. Dave Wilkie said. “We anticipated it.”

Following the money

Meth was in North Dakota long before the current boom — in 2004 there were 238 meth clandestine laboratory incidents, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and the National Drug Intelligence Center, in its 2002 North Dakota Drug Threat Assessment, reported that “Methamphetamine production in North Dakota is low but increasing.”

The issue was “a very large focus prior to 2008,” said Pam Sagness, substance abuse lead with the state Department of Human Services, but a concerted effort in both North Dakota and nationwide helped to curb the problem. By 2011, the number of meth clandestine lab incidents in the state — including labs, dumpsites and lab equipment — was down to just eight.

“The Attorney General’s Office took a very strong approach in being proactive in trying to deal with meth issues,” Sagness said, but “just in the last two years we’re seeing numbers start to increase again. It’s something that’s concerning.”

Marijuana has long been the most prevalent drug in the region, said Dickinson Police Chief Dustin Dassinger, but he admitted he doesn’t really have the answer as to why meth use in particular has spiked. The drug’s prevalence in the state, particularly the western half, isn’t a simple story of cause and effect, but rather of supply and demand.

The growth, officials say, is largely the result of targeted efforts by drug 

manufacturers to capitalize on the excess wealth in the Bakken. As Wilkie explains: “We’re seeing more meth because we’re seeing more money.”

Where money goes, drugs tend to follow, and the wealth of oil money in western North Dakota is no different. Meth is “a fairly cheap drug to make,” Wilkie said, and carries a low bottom line and high profit margin. Given the type of work characteristic in the oil industry, with its long hours, hard work and generally high pay, the Bakken region presents an obvious market for gangs and cartels to sell the drug, and more potent supplies of it.

“When they see we have a big, gigantic hot spot in the country for making money and wealth is right here, they’re going to focus their efforts,” Wilkie said. “They’re taking their chances on transporting and selling methamphetamines, cocaine, heroin, whatever they’ve got to sell. … If you’ve watched over the last couple of years and have any interest in economics at all, you’ll understand that this is the place to make money.”

It has lead to not only more arrests, but more of the drug itself, said U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon — the Berthold net was “an unheard of amount of meth for western North Dakota,” he said — a fact that also points to more organized drug activity.

Purdon said the number of total violent crimes in western North Dakota prosecuted in federal court through the U.S. Attorney’s office in Bismarck — 126 

defendants in 2009 grew to 336 in 2013 — indicates of a “rapid increase in multi-defendant drug conspiracy cases.” Dickinson was notably the center of “Operation Pipe Cleaner” in early 2014, which resulted in 22 arrests for drug trafficking offenses in state and federal court.

“No question, we’ve seen organized crime groups moving to Williston, to Dickinson, to Minot,” he said.

‘Behind the 8 ball’

The federal response, he noted, has been swift: Officials opened a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives office in Bismarck, a new FBI office is set to open in Williston later this year, and there are “a record number of FBI agents” in the western half of the state, Purdon said.

But it will take “more law enforcement resources up and down the chain,” not just at the federal level, to combat the latest rise in meth crimes, he said, including more police officers, jails, probation officers and treatment centers.

“The federal government has stepped up,” he said, but local communities “need additional resources too.”

It’s that lack of resources that hinders local law enforcement officials and local social service providers.

“Absolutely that’s an issue,” Sagness said. “What’s our capacity to truly serve these issues?”

Like any other industry, social services have faced capacity issues and workforce 

issues, she said. The state’s eight regional human service centers are facing staffing and service shortages just as the public demand is growing.

Transient and mobile populations — like those making their way to the Bakken in search of work — are particularly at risk for meth abuse, Sagness explained. From 2010 to 2013, the number of methamphetamine users seeking help at human service centers across the state increased from 673 to 1,182.

Though the local human service center recently hired an additional licensed addiction counselor to its staff and will once again be able to provide day treatment for the first time since February 2014, the office sometimes refers clients seeking services to other regions or private treatment centers in the area.

“We know how much of a need there is,” said Sandy Thompson, regional director of Badlands Human Service Center in Dickinson and West Central Human Services Center in Bismarck, “and it’s difficult to provide all of the services that people in those regions deserve when you don’t have adequate workforce.”

It will take a coordinated effort between law enforcement, social services and health care providers to not only effectively serve those seeking services for meth use, but to prevent the issue in the first place, law and health officials say. The Dickinson Police Department coordinates with the Southwest Narcotics Task Force, which is made up of representatives from several state and local agencies, and works on partnerships with the BCI, Stark County Sheriff’s Office and other agencies to “curb some of the drug-related issues that we have in our community,” police chief Dassinger said.

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