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Senators address Oil Patch drug problem

U.S. Sens. John Hoeven, left, John Tester, and Heidi Heitkamp listen to local, state and federal law enforcement and public officials on Friday during a roundtable discussion about efforts to reduce drug use in the Bakken.

BISMARCK -- North Dakota's top attorney said Friday that when the state's 2012 crime statistics come out July 30, "it's not going to be good."

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said the increase in drug crime statistics alone has his office worried as many different drugs are being pushed around the Oil Patch at a significantly high rate.

"We're seeing a lot of people moving in with a lot of money," he said.

Stenehjem took part in a roundtable discussion orchestrated by U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., that put together 28 officials from local, state and federal law enforcement, as well as schools and health organizations, to address efforts to reduce drug use in the Bakken.

"It's an opportunity to understand where we are coordinating and taking a look at jurisdictional issues," Heitkamp said. "If we are having trouble, how do we fix that."

Friday's discussion included U.S. Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., and the country's top drug enforcement official, Richard Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. All but Hoeven spent Friday morning in Montana talking about reducing drug use.

The general consensus was that the largest issue plaguing North Dakota is a lack of law enforcement resources.

For instance, there is no Drug Enforcement Administration representative in the Oil Patch; U.S. Border Patrol agents are available, but not in the right places; and the FBI is short-staffed due to sequestration and budget cuts.

"We're always struggling for enough resources," Hoeven said. "North Dakota is the fastest-growing state in the nation. We are struggling to catch up, which makes coordination so important."

U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon said he has lost eight employees the past two years who would be critical to prosecuting drug crimes.

Purdon said Fargo has been having a steady 200 drug-related federal indictments a year.

In western North Dakota, 172 were indicted in 2011, 256 in 2012 and 205 during the first six months of this year, with the state on track to be over 400 this year.

Purdon said many are moving to the Oil Patch with the intention of selling drugs.

"It's not six degrees of separation from Mexican drug cartels," he said.

Most recent data compiled by the Bureau of Criminal Investigation under the Attorney General's Office found drug arrests increased 13.8 percent, from 2,339 in 2010 to 2,662 in 2011.

Two-thirds of all arrests in 2011 were males, with most between 25 and 29. Juveniles made up 13.7 percent, or 366, of the total drug arrests in 2011.

Since 2002 more than 88 percent of the drug arrests have been for possession rather than the sale or manufacture of drugs; 71 percent of arrests involved marijuana.

Kerlikowske, who diligently took notes throughout the 90-minute meeting, said new drug control policies are essential to helping curb drug issues.

"We're not going to arrest our way out of a problem," Kerlikowske said.

President Barack Obama has Kerlikowske working on a drug control policy to expand prevention, treatment and "smart on crime" approaches to fostering healthier and safer communities.

The plan calls for substantial reforms to the nation's criminal justice system to lower incarceration rates and reduce the number of repeat offenders while protecting public safety.

The new plan includes specialized courts that divert nonviolent drug offenders into treatment instead of prison and creating re-entry programs, which help guide former offenders back into society, support their recovery from addiction and help them avoid a return to the criminal justice system.

Mike Nowatzki

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