North Dakota Oil Boom Triggering Spike In Drug Trade

By McCarton Ackerman 04/17/14

The flow of oil has triggered a flood of meth and heroin, with the feds seeing triple the number of prosecutions for drugs in recent years.

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With the oil boom in the Bakken Shale fields of Western North Dakota bringing in huge money to small communities, local police are now struggling to control a rapidly expanding drug trade.

In Watford City, police calls for service have multiplied by 100 in the last five years, while several reports have indicated heroin being trafficked on isolated Indian reservations. Federal prosecutions in the Western half of North Dakota have also tripled in recent years, from 126 in 2009 to 336 last year. Recognizing the growing problems, the feds are now desperately trying to increase and strengthen local police and drug task forces.

"We're battling our butts off to stay ahead of this,” said U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon. "Our concern is that this is an open market and as people start to compete, the violence will increase...There's nothing less at stake here than our way of life."

North Dakota battled a homegrown meth epidemic several years ago, but these days the meth is coming in from Mexico. It’s also being sold in greater quantities at higher costs. Meth seizures in Ward County, roughly two hours away from the oil fields, jumped from $63,200 in 2012 to $404,600 last year. A gram of meth that might cost $120 in big cities will cost $200 in more rural areas. Heroin has also been introduced into the drug trade around the oil fields, while Bismarck ATF agent Derek Hill noted that “we’re seeing a lot more armed drug traffickers.”

Local courts are also noticing that many of the people being arrested for drug-related crimes aren’t from North Dakota. The Bakken Formation extends into nearby Montana, where two members of the Sinaloa Cartel were found and arrested. And with oil expected to flow in the Bakken for at least another generation, many local officials have expressed concern that the drug trade will dominate their communities.

"I pretty much knew most of the defendants [before]. I knew their parents, their kids, their grandparents, their next-door neighbors. Now I can go weeks and see people I've never seen before,” said Judge David Nelson. “It's amazing how many people are arrested within days of getting here."

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.