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Culture to crime: Project ACE conference highlights changes North Dakota faces

Press Photo by Nadya Faulx Grand Forks Police Sgt. Travis Jacobson, a drug recognition expert, speaks at a public event following Tuesday’s Project ACE conference, which highlighted challenges facing the Dickinson community. Drug use “isn’t a new problem, it’s a changing problem,” he said.

In post-oil boom Dickinson, drug use isn’t a new problem, but it is a changing one, according to one North Dakota drug recognition expert.

Speaking at a conference hosted by the non-profit Community Action Partnership Tuesday, Grand Forks Police Sgt. Travis Jacobson outlined the signs and symptoms of drug-use before a crowd of 100 or so social workers, drug counselors and law enforcement officers.

“There’s a lot of people who are naive to it, or ignorant to it,” he said in an interview. “They say, ‘This wouldn’t happen to me, or my son, or my neighbor.’”

His presentation was part of Project ACE (Action, Commitment, Education), a semi-annual event organized by Dickinson’s Community Action Partnership to highlight major issues facing the state and region.

This year’s event reflected some of the side effects of the oil boom, including changes in crime and increasing workforce diversity.

Jacobson was joined by Dickinson State University business professor and diversity trainer Kostas Voutsas, who discussed the costs and advantages of a diverse workforce; and human trafficking survivor advocate Windie Jo Lazenko, who spoke at a panel held Monday in Williston on sex trafficking in the Oil Patch.

Jacobson, a trained drug recognition expert and 13-year police veteran, stressed to the crowd that drugs are not a new phenomenon in Dickinson or North Dakota, but that the uses and signs are changing, especially among young adults.

“Drugs have always been around,” he said. “Now it’s just different types of drugs, and what they’re doing with it.”

He said after the conference that his main hope was that the audience will now try to “recognize the signs and symptoms” of drug use, from a person’s behavior to eye dilation.

His goal was “just the education of what (drug users) are doing, how they are doing it,” he said.

Lazenko, a trafficking survivor, also stressed awareness of the signs as a way of combating the prevalence of sex trafficking in the Bakken.

She said children are often misidentified as abandoned or runaways, when in reality they have been forced into the sex trade.

Once you know to recognize the tell-tale signs of sex trafficking, “if you come face-to-face with a victim, you absolutely have a responsibility to call Child Protective Services,” Lazenko said.

Scott Harris, a residential specialist at Home on the Range near Sentinel Butte, attended the conference and said the presentations were important in “informing staff of new things out there” to keep an eye on.

“It just educates our people, makes them more aware, makes them more proactive,” he said.

Harris said the oil boom was bringing in changes he and many other professionals haven’t encountered before.

“We’ve been in such a rural setting all our life,” he said. “This influx of people, it’s changed. It’s more crowded, with different cultures that we’re not used to.”

But that was the point of the event, said Becky Byzewski, Drug-Free Communities Director at Community Action Partnership.

“For some people, some of this is new,” she said. “They only know what they’d hear in the news.”

She said whether or not people know it, the changes seen across North Dakota have already arrived in Dickinson and have to be dealt with.

“It’s here,” she said. “If it makes it to Bismarck, it will make it here. If it makes it to Williston, it will make it here.”