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Drug arrests up, teen binge drinking and DUIs down in N.D.

BISMARCK — Drug arrests climbed by nearly 20 percent in North Dakota last year, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem told lawmakers Tuesday, warning the state has “a completely different situation than we had with the drug cases even 10 years ago.”

Stenehjem, delivering his annual report on illegal drug use and enforcement efforts, said methamphetamine, heroin and other drugs are seeping into the state – especially into western North Dakota’s booming Oil Patch — directly from Mexico instead of from further down the distribution chain.

“They’re coming in in enormous quantities, and they are coming in with people who bring them right in from the cartels, and increasingly they are armed and exceedingly dangerous individuals,” he told the Legislature’s interim Judiciary Committee.

The state’s Uniform Crime Report for 2013 won’t be released for another week or so, but Stenehjem provided a sneak peek in revealing that the state recorded 3,431 drug arrests last year, a 19.5 percent increase over 2012’s total of 2,872 drug arrests. The 2012 total marked a 39 percent increase over 2009 and a 286 percent increase since 1990.

Recent investigations have led authorities to believe that multiple pounds of methamphetamine are being trafficked through the Bakken oil field on a weekly basis, Stenehjem stated in his report. Last year, 53 percent of the Bureau of Criminal Investigation’s cases were drug-related, and 38 percent of those cases involved meth.

Trafficking and abuse of prescription drugs, cocaine, heroin and high-potency marijuana — including pot grown legally in Colorado and Washington — also is on the rise, Stenehjem said.

Rep. Lawrence Klemin, R-Bismarck, asked if there was anything lawmakers could do to counter the trend. Stenehjem highlighted the three additional BCI agents and $16.6 million in oil impact grants for local law enforcement agencies that lawmakers approved last year and said he plans to bring a similar request for additional resources during the 2015 legislative session.

“We need to concentrate in particular on the cartels,” he said.

Striking a more positive tone, Stenehjem noted the rate of binge drinking among North Dakotans in grades 9-12 fell from 41.5 percent in 2001 to 21.9 percent in 2013 and was only slightly higher than the national average of 20.8 percent in the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Binge drinking was defined as having five or more drinks of alcohol in a row within a couple of hours on at least one day during the 30 days before the survey.

“We’re seeing some significant and very encouraging news,” he said, citing educational and law enforcement efforts as factors in reducing the binge drinking rate.

Stenehjem also highlighted a “substantial” decrease in drunken-driving arrests since enhanced DUI penalties approved by the 2013 Legislature took effect July 1, despite more people driving more miles and more police on the roads.

The number of DUI convictions decreased from 8,172 arrests in the year before the new DUI law took effect to 6,600 from July 1 to June 24. Stenehjem also noted that the North Dakota Highway Patrol recorded 12 alcohol-related fatalities through June 25 of this year, compared with 71 during all of 2013 and 87 in 2012.

Stenehjem said it may be too early to declare the new DUI law a smashing success, “but I don’t know what else we’re doing that’s different.” The 24/7 sobriety program also is helping to keep potential drunk drivers off the roads, he said.

“It appears that we’re doing something right and the numbers are going down,” he said.

The Judiciary Committee is working on several draft bills that would modify the DUI law.

Mike Nowatzki

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