North Dakota judge, others call for stronger efforts to prevent drug overdose

Expanding treatment options, educating vulnerable groups on Narcan use, and proposing mandatory minimum sentences for fentanyl dealers are some prevention efforts public officials recommend.

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Grand Forks County District Attorney Haley Wamstad is photographed in her office Tuesday, Jan.10, 2023.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

GRAND FORKS — A judge with more than three decades of legal experience in the state says North Dakota should establish a mandatory minimum sentence for fentanyl dealers and fund inpatient treatment to address the issue of drug overdoses.

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Judge Don Hager, who is based in Grand Forks.
State of North Dakota Courts

Don Hager, presiding judge of the Northeast Central Judicial District, said people convicted of drug crimes are often paroled by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation within seven or eight months – regardless of their sentence. He believes this is because the DOCR thinks many dealers only sell drugs to pay for their own use.

In Hager’s opinion, a mandatory minimum sentence for fentanyl trafficking would help deter drug users who also sell. Hager hopes the Legislature considers proposing a mandatory minimum.

“I don’t know what they’re going to do legislatively,” said Hager. “If they can be convinced to give minimum sentences to where it scares [users] enough to say, ‘No, we don’t want to take the chance. We’ll buy from you but we’re not going to sell for you.’”

Haley Wamstad, Grand Forks County state's attorney, agrees that more focus on dealers is necessary.


“From a law enforcement perspective, we need to focus our attention on the dealers that are bringing these substances to our communities, and focus on a tough approach towards them,” she said.

There were 4,212 arrests for drug/narcotic violations last year in North Dakota, according to the state’s Theme Oriented Public Site (TOPS) — a public database of violent, property and drug/DUI crimes.

Hager said the lack of treatment options contributes significantly to the large number of repeat offenders who come through his courtroom.

“We just see these people coming back again,” said Hager. “We put them in jail, try to send them through some outpatient type of treatment. ... We’ll just see them again within a short time.”

Other public safety and public health officials agree with Hager’s assessment that there is “no real inpatient treatment” in Grand Forks, despite what they see as a mounting need for it.

Wamstad said the criminal justice system needs to expand treatment options “so that folks that are users of illicit substances aren’t returning back to the criminal justice system but, instead, addressing their addiction.”

Col. Brandon Solberg, of the North Dakota Highway Patrol, believes law enforcement is only catching “a small fraction” of drugs that come through North Dakota.

“Not that law enforcement needs to give up,” Solberg said. “But we still have to figure out why there’s such a demand in our state, and treatment services are going to be able to help.”


Treatment and prevention

According to Hager, a defendant's attitude toward drug treatment can affect sentencing.

“We don’t want to put people in jail if they’re addicts,” said Hager. “We want them to go to treatment. … But our hands are tied. We don’t have much choice.”

North Dakota Behavioral Health collaborated with the city of Grand Forks to start an opioid treatment center earlier this year. The program, Community Medical Services, provides medication-assisted treatment (MAT), counseling and peer support.

“Right now, we only have four opioid treatment programs in the state ..." said James Knopik, from North Dakota Behavioral Health. "There definitely are some gaps on where we want to see those types of programs continue to expand.”

North Dakota Behavioral Health’s role in prevention includes funding preventative efforts throughout North Dakota as well as running its own statewide programs.

The Parents Lead program focuses on preventing all kinds of substance misuse, in part by increasing protective factors for youth through their parents.

Parents can have a positive influence on their children through “role modeling, engaging and supporting their children, effective monitoring – which is knowing where your kids are and what they’re doing – and ongoing communication with them,” said Knopik, who is his organization’s addiction and prevention program and policy manager.


There were 131 drug overdose deaths last year statewide, according to previous Herald reports . Opioids and methamphetamines were the most common.


“We can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” Grand Forks Police Chief Mark Nelson said in a press release.

North Dakota has laws in place that aim to prevent overdose deaths. For example, the Good Samaritan Law protects anyone who calls for help when someone they’re with is experiencing an overdose.

“You can call law enforcement, and if you have been using … you're not going to get in trouble for that,” Solberg said.

As long as they follow a few requirements, such as cooperating with emergency personnel, callers – as well as the person experiencing an overdose – will not be charged with any drug crime.

A main topic in the discussion of preventing drug overdose deaths is naloxone (more commonly known by the brand name Narcan), a nasal spray used to treat opioid overdose.

First-responders and – more recently – law enforcement officers carry Narcan in North Dakota. According to Solberg, that’s been a “big step.”

A Narcan prescription can be written by a physician or pharmacist, according to the North Dakota Prevention Resource and Media Center website. The Department of Health and Human Services distributes Narcan by mail at no cost; it can be requested online.

“I really just want to emphasize the Narcan that’s available,” said Knopik, “so that people know they can get Narcan for free from their local public health unit or from our Behavioral Health website. Because that really is going to be one of the biggest things to turn the curve on the increased opioid overdose deaths that we’ve seen in North Dakota.”


According to the North Dakota Prevention Resource & Media Center, “any individual (family, friends, or community member) is protected from civil or criminal liability for giving naloxone for a suspected opioid overdose (North Dakota Century Code 23-01-42).”

Sav Kelly joined the Grand Forks Herald in August 2022.

Kelly covers public safety, including local crime and the courts system.

Readers can reach Kelly at (701) 780-1102 or
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