Drug Czar Visit Highlights Oil Patch’s Issues

By Beacon Staff

FARGO, N.D. — Of all the warning bells sounded by law enforcement officials in North Dakota and Montana about crime associated with the Bakken oil patch’s rapid population growth, the one that seems to ring true involves drug trafficking.

Michael Cotter, U.S. attorney from Montana, cites an April 2012 meeting he sponsored that was attended by about 150 law enforcement officials, many of whom predicted a dramatic uptick in the amount of methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin and illegal prescription drugs hitting the streets in oil country.

“We’re seeing that now. It’s all headed out to the Bakken,” Cotter said Thursday.

The situation has drawn the attention of Director of National Drug Control Policy R. Gil Kerlikowske, who plans to visit the oil patch Friday and meet with law enforcement officials in Glendive, Mont., and Bismarck. His visit was organized by North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Montana Sen. Jon Tester.

“It was important for me to have him come to North Dakota and see firsthand the drug issues we are facing,” Heitkamp said. “When he returns to D.C., he will be able to report directly to the president and his administration about what steps must be taken to reduce drug abuse and drug-related crime in our part of the country.”

Heitkamp would not be specific about possible solutions, but emphasized prevention and treatment. Law enforcement leaders have said they want more muscle in a region that’s seen an influx of thousands of oilfield workers in the last five years.

Cotter and fellow U.S. attorney Timothy Purdon from North Dakota have advocated for more officers in the Bakken, though federal cutbacks will impede any assignments that have already been made. North Dakota has added several FBI agents in Minot and Bismarck and a Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms agent in Bismarck. And Montana has beefed up its federal presence in the eastern part of the state.

Kerlikowske’s office did not respond to interview requests.

Purdon said an increase in multi-defendant drug cases is the key reason why 205 people have been charged with crimes in the western districts of federal court for the first six months of the year. That compares to 256 defendants charged in the Bismarck and Minot districts all of last year.

Federal indictments unsealed earlier this month charge 22 people with conspiracy to sell heroin and other drugs on a western North Dakota Indian reservation.”

The state plans to issue its annual crime report in the next week or two. North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem told The Associated Press earlier this week that while some of the predictions for increased crime in western North Dakota have not come true — such as sexual assault cases — the “one thing we know is that the drug problem is very serious out there.”

He said that sparked his request to the state Legislature for three new investigators and two new crime lab scientists.

Watford City Police Chief Jesse Wellen, whose district is in the heart of oil country, said he welcomes the drug czar’s visit and any further assistance from the federal government.

“Any help would be great. It’s just a busy place out here,” Wellen said. “It’s a lot of work for everyone.”

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