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Michael Botticelli, acting director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, speaks at a press conference Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014, in Minot, as North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, far right, and U.S. Attorney for North Dakota Tim Purdon listen. (Mike Nowatzki / Forum News Service)

Updated: Bakken crime targeted as drug czar lays out northern border drug strategy

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MINOT - The Obama administration’s drug czar chose North Dakota oil country on Tuesday to unveil the White House’s updated strategy for fighting illicit drug movement on the U.S.-Canada border, highlighting the “emerging threat” posed by synthetic drugs and drug trafficking in the Bakken oilfield region.

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“We’re really trying to look at how we make sure that we get additional resources to those areas most in need,” Michael Botticelli, who was named acting director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy in March, said during a press conference at the Ward County Courthouse in Minot.

Ward County Sheriff’s Capt. Mike Nason didn’t hesitate to speak up about the need, asking Botticelli about the chances of seeing an increased presence in western North Dakota by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, whose lack of visibility has been a sore spot for some here.

“When we partnered with the DEA, we got the biggest bang for our buck,” Nason, a former North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation agent for 15 years and drug task force leader, said after the press conference. “We could really use them out here.”

Botticelli said that’s “an opportunity I need to look at” and discuss with DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart.

Botticelli’s visit marked the second time in 14 months the White House’s drug czar has visited western North Dakota, where a population boom fueled by oil and gas development has brought more drug and human trafficking, officials said Tuesday.

His predecessor, R. Gil Kerlikowske, now the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, spent time talking with law enforcement officials in the Bakken in North Dakota and Montana in July 2013 at the request of U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

“And pretty much right after that we started seeing attention to this problem, and so these visits matter, and what they see on the ground matters,” Heitkamp said Tuesday.

The 50-page National Northern Border Counternarcotics Strategy laid out Tuesday includes a brief section on drug trafficking in the Bakken, describing how an influx of highly paid oilfield workers into an area with limited spending opportunities has created a drug market and led to an overall increase in crime.

Tim Purdon, the U.S. attorney for North Dakota, said lawyers in the Bismarck office prosecuted 336 defendants on federal crimes last year, up from 126 in 2009, an increase he attributed primarily to the number of multi-defendant drug conspiracy cases.

Drug arrests in what the North Dakota attorney general’s office considers the state’s 12 oil counties increased 40 percent last year, compared to a nearly 20 percent increase statewide, according to the 2013 state crime report.

The idea that the national drug control strategy would have anything connected to North Dakota is “highly unusual, unique and a comment on the challenges that we’re facing,” Purdon said.

“The fact of the matter is this: Our hometowns in western North Dakota are developing big city crime problems,” he said.

The updated strategy for the nation’s 5,225-mile northern border – the longest international border in the world – expands upon the original strategy published by President Barack Obama’s administration in 2012.

Among its goals are better sharing of information and intelligence between agencies working along the border, boosting anti-drug efforts and cooperation with tribal governments along the border and investigating and prosecuting transnational crime organizations.

Purdon, North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Charles Addington, deputy associate director of the Office of Justice Services at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, all described how their agencies have put more resources into agents, officers and prosecutors at the federal, state, local and tribal levels. But they said more help is needed across the board.

“It seems that the southern border gets all the attention and we ignore the fact that there are drugs and there is human trafficking that is transferring across the northern border of this country, as well,” Stenehjem said.

Purdon said North Dakota is seeing criminal cases involving outlaw motorcycle gangs, Mexican cartels and urban street gangs relocating from California.

“I don’t think there’s anything less at stake as we go about our business over the next few years than the way of life in our hometowns in western North Dakota,” he said.

Heitkamp said filling new law enforcement positions is a challenge because of the high cost of living in western North Dakota. She said officials are seeking more salary flexibility from the federal Office of Personnel Management, which will visit the region in September.

Officials Tuesday also stressed the need for more federal resources to help fight the demand side of drug trafficking. Heitkamp said western North Dakota authorities are arresting people with substance abuse and behavioral health problems and bringing them to jail because there aren’t enough treatment options available.

Botticelli, who before joining the White House was director of substance abuse services for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, said federal funding to states for treatment resources has increased despite budget cuts, and the Affordable Care Act should help those who didn’t have insurance before obtain treatment.

“Hopefully, we’ll continue to see some improvement in treatment access,” he said.

Reach Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at mnowatzki@forumcomm.com.

 
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Mike Nowatzki
Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.
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