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Southwest Narcotics Task Force addresses New England City Council

During the City of New England’s monthly meeting on Monday evening, an investigator with the Southwest Narcotics Task delivered a presentation explaining the growing issue of drugs flowing into North Dakota.

Southwest SWAT Team
A member of the Southwest Tactical Team secures the premises during a training session on room clearing.
Josiah C. Cuellar / The Dickinson Press

NEW ENGLAND, N.D. — During a New England City Council meeting on Monday evening, a drug enforcement agent addressed the board and highlighted the growing presence of illicit substances and gangs throughout North Dakota over the past decade.

Contrary to popular belief, the agent noted that gangs are becoming more prevalent and rising gang activities have become increasingly violent.

“Ten years ago, if somebody would have mentioned to me that there were gangs operating in North Dakota, I would have laughed at them,” the agent said. “We have several outlaw motorcycle gangs in the state such as the Sons of Silence and the Hell’s Angels. They all profit off trafficking narcotics in the state. Tensions between them have become increasingly violent, mainly between Bismarck and Grand Forks. However, they do have quite a few support groups throughout the state here.”

The agent, who is a deputy with the Hettinger County Sheriff’s Office, serves as an investigator for the Southwest Narcotics Task Force. The law enforcement agency is an eight-county cooperative that includes law enforcement agencies in Adams, Billings, Bowman, Dunn, Golden Valley, Hettinger, Slope and Stark counties.

According to the agent, it’s not just biker gangs that are moving drugs on the Western Edge.

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“We do have an influx of black gangs, especially in the Dickinson area. If you pay attention, you know that the entire south side of Dickinson looks a lot like the projects lately. Unfortunately, (it's) what you would see in like Detroit or Chicago,” the agent reported to the council. “The thing with the gangs here in North Dakota is they're kind of what's called a hybrid gang, where it's not so much a turf war. They're all here for the same purpose and that is making money. We also have known ties to the Mexican drug cartels operating in North Dakota as well.”

A lucrative market

The smaller supply of illicit drugs in this area enables hefty price hikes, which makes it an attractive market for dealers and traffickers, the agent explained. For example, someone could buy an ounce of meth in California for $100, then sell it here for $500 to 1,000. The same is true of fentanyl, they added.

“Fentanyl pills are kind of a nationwide trend right now sweeping all over the country. If you go down south to Arizona and Texas, you can get them for a couple bucks, if not less — 50 cents to $1 then bring them up here. And we're buying them off the streets for $80 a piece,” they said. “So there's a huge markup for narcotics up here and that's what's driving this influx of these people bringing their criminal element to our area.”

Hettinger County Sheriff Sarah Warner said she recently returned from a Western State Sheriffs Association Conference in Nevada, where problems on the southern border were a major topic of discussion.

“It's nothing like what you're seeing on TV. They said in the first two months (of 2022), they've seen probably about 800,000 people from 167 different countries cross our borders,” Warner said. “They interview these people and they're not wanting to stay down south. They're coming to the Midwest.”

Opioid crisis

As penalties in North Dakota and across the country have been gradually relaxed, the agent said the Southwest Narcotics Task Force is focused much more on hard drugs than marijuana.

“I'm not going to spend a whole lot of time on marijuana. That's been decriminalized here. You’re hard pressed to find an attorney these days that will actually charge out a marijuana offense unless it's like a couple pounds worth or they're actually growing it in their basement,” they said.

Opioids, such as fentanyl and heroin, are the highest level target of the Southwest Narcotics Task Force and most other drug enforcement agencies in America, they noted, adding that heroin addiction starts out innocuously for most users.

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“With heroin, people usually get addicted on the pills prescribed to them, unfortunately, through their doctors. It becomes too expensive or they're not getting enough of it and their kick increases so they switch to heroin,” the agent said.

The agent then pulled out a small vial with a grainy substance and explained that it was fentanyl, enough to cause a fatal overdose. Carfentanil is even more potent.

“There’s maybe like 10 salt granules in there,” they said. “Unfortunately, this carfentanil is what is being put into a lot of the street level drugs these days, and is what's causing most of the fatal overdoses we have.”

Amatuer meth labs have become much less common, as meth is now primarily coming from drug cartels. What’s more popular now, they said, is the use of easy to acquire pill presses to manufacture fentanyl pills. The agent noted that dosages can be unevenly distributed because the pills aren’t being made professionally, so people who cut pills in half risk overdose by ingesting more than anticipated.

Often a non-fatal overdose would result in a trip to the hospital and being sent to drug treatment. The agent noted that the wider availability of Narcan sprays sometimes enables addicts to continue their destructive behavior rather than the intended purpose of saving lives.

“The growing trend is these guys now, instead of calling in their overdoses they'll just Narcan themselves and wake themselves back up. So for every one of those that we investigate, there's probably 10 that we don't even hear about,” the agent said.

The agent also took issue with the often caricatured phrase “war on drugs” and addressed what they believe are misconceptions surrounding it.

“When you start talking about war you expect there to be an end to it. Unfortunately, there's not going to be an end to this. Drugs have kind of been an issue since we started walking upright and hitting each other with sticks,” they said. “The best we can do is keep it to a dull roar and get as much of this off the streets as we can.”

Jason O’Day is a University of Iowa graduate, with Bachelor’s Degrees in Journalism and Political Science. Before moving to Dickinson in September of 2021, he was a general news reporter at the Creston News Advertiser in southwest Iowa. He was born and raised in Davenport, Iowa. With a passion for the outdoors and his Catholic faith, he’s loving life on the Western Edge. His reporting focuses on Stark County government and surrounding rural communities.
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