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Drugs in the Oil Patch: Law enforcement seeing larger quantities of illegal substances as they make more arrests

North Dakota's Oil Patch is quickly becoming a battleground for the war on drugs. And it's not just marijuana, officials say. It's the hard stuff.

"We're starting to see two differences in terms of the drugs that we're seeing in the northwest corner of the state," said Timothy Purdon, U.S. Attorney for the state of North Dakota. "In the west what we're starting to see that is concerning me is the presence of new drugs, specifically heroin. We've not previously seen heroin readily available in places like Williston, Dickinson or New Town.

"The second thing that concerns me is that we certainly have reports from officers on the ground that when they discover drugs at a traffic stop or something like that -- they make a drug arrest on the street -- that the amount of drugs we're seeing -- methamphetamine, marijuana, things like that -- is a lot higher than it used to be."

Heroin is one of the stronger drugs to have made its way into Stark County, said Capt. Dean Franchuk of the Stark County Sheriff's Office.

"It's sporadic," he said. "But that's something that we haven't seen for a few years and now all of a sudden that's popped up again."

The sheriff's office has reported near the amount of arrests this year that it reported in all of last year, which was double the amount in 2011, Franchuk said.

From 2003 to 2012, drug arrests in the 12 counties deemed the Oil Patch increased 405 percent, from 115 in 2003 to 581 in 2012, according to the statistics released Tuesday by Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.

In about that same time, the combined population of Billings, Burke, Divide, Dunn, Golden Valley, McKenzie, McLean, Mercer, Mountrail, Stark, Ward and Williams counties increased 15 percent, from 142,632 in 2000 to 163,857 in 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

Statewide, there was a 40 percent increase in drug arrests compared to a population increase of 9 percent, according to the Attorney General's statistics.

In the 10 years sampled in Stenehjem's report, there were 23,139 drug arrests throughout the state. The majority of drug arrests, 88 percent, were for possession rather than sales or manufacture.

Marijuana was the most prevalent type of drug found, making up 71 percent of drug arrests in the last 10 years. Opiates, cocaine and their derivatives accounted for 2 percent and all other drugs, including methamphetamine, accounted for 27 percent of drug arrests from 2003 to 2012.

"You used to maybe see an eight ball or something like that of methamphetamine, now you're starting to see a half-pound, pound, greater quantities," Purdon said. "There's no question that the population of western North Dakota has increased dramatically in the last few years -- more people is going to equal more crime. What hasn't increased at the same pace is the number of law enforcement officers. We need more cops, prosecutors, judges, courtrooms, jail cells, probation officers -- all the way through the system."

In 2007, the FBI added a fourth North Dakota field office in Minot, which now houses five agents and is the largest office in the state.

"That office didn't exist six years ago and now it's the largest office with five agents," Purdon said.

On July 1, Purdon unsealed indictments related to "Operation Winter's End" which netted 22 arrests in relation to a heroin ring planning on selling the drug on the Fort Berthold Reservation and in northwestern North Dakota.

"Within two years we've had the federal government respond by scrambling additional resources to this area and we've seen the increased prosecutions in my office," Purdon said. "I think, at this point, the success story is the federal government's quick response."

Cooperation between local, state, tribal and federal officials is key in capturing drug activity, Purdon said.

"We're communicating and working together so that it can't be that some drug officer in Williston has half the story and a tribal drug officer in New Town has the other half, and because they only each have half we don't have the whole story," Purdon said. "We have to make sure that we're working together because these new traffickers don't recognize the jurisdictional boundaries. In fact, they try to take advantage of them."

The level of violence involved in drug trafficking has increased in the state, Purdon said.

Less than a year ago, five men involved in methamphetamine distribution, led by Jeffrey Jim "Pops" Butler, were indicted for allegedly kidnapping Robert Osterhout in order to prevent him from reporting them to the authorities.

Osterhout was allegedly beaten and taken by the men in North Dakota, placed in a car trunk lined with plastic, driven to Montana where he was beaten again and left for dead, according to the indictment. Osterhout survived.

"When you see people lining the trunk of a car with plastic to put a bound, gagged person in the back for the purpose of kidnapping him, that level of violence obviously concerns me," Purdon said.

One of the biggest changes with the oil boom is the channels through which illegal drugs flow.

"We've got an increase in population of people come from out of state to work here and they bring with them the contacts and the life that they've led before they come here," Purdon said. "Now, 99 percent of the people that come to the Oil Patch to work are hard-working Americans trying to make a good living, and that's great, but there's always going to be that element that comes in with any population increase."

The shadier of the newcomers have closed the gap between Mexico and North Dakota.

"Instead of six degrees of separation between a drug deal in Williston and the Mexican cartels, instead of those drugs going through five or six different dealers to get to Williston, it's now one degree or two degrees," Purdon said. "Our investigations from the Oil Patch aren't leading to Bismarck or to Fargo or to Billings (Mont.) anymore, they can lead to California, to Chicago and to Mexico, frankly, very quickly. Much more quickly than it used to occur."

Even meth is being brought in, although North Dakota's vastness is a concern for officials.

"You could have these same drug trafficking organizations taking advantage of the rural nature of North Dakota to set up large cooking operations in the state -- not just one person cooking for himself but a large operation in a rural area," Purdon said. "It is a vulnerability, it's a potential threat that we think about."

The cartels have thrown focus from other drug trends.

"If it wasn't for what we're dealing with -- which is the growing threat from organized drug trafficking -- if that wasn't such a growing threat right now we'd be talking about prescription drugs," Purdon said. "We need to fight very hard right now to make sure we retain control of the streets in western North Dakota."

All law enforcement has one goal.

"When we talk about battling organized drug traffickers who are moving to the state, we're talking about fighting for nothing less than preserving our way of life in western North Dakota," Purdon said.

Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
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