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Law enforcement sees rise in heroin distribution, use in North Dakota

DICKINSON, N.D. -- The levels of violent crime, drug trafficking and prosecutions in the U.S. Attorney's Office are up. Piggybacking on the state's recent oil boom that has brought much economic prosperity to once mostly rural areas, organized cr...

Heroin was developed by Bayer Pharmaceuticals as a "nonaddictive" alternative to morphine in the late 19th century. Both are derived from opium. Modern heroin addiction tracks its use from prescription opiate addiction. Drug traffickers are bringing the highly addictive substance into the Oil Patch. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

DICKINSON, N.D. -- The levels of violent crime, drug trafficking and prosecutions in the U.S. Attorney's Office are up. Piggybacking on the state's recent oil boom that has brought much economic prosperity to once mostly rural areas, organized crime has come to North Dakota.

In the past six to eight months, the Dickinson Police Department has seen more heroin coming into Dickinson than ever before. While heroin finds are infrequent -- it has been found in powder and tar-like forms -- it has put law enforcement on high alert, said Dickinson police Sgt. Kylan Klauzer.

"Once it does get its teeth in the markets, I think it can make a strong hold," Klauzer said. "It's something that all of the agencies are familiar with. It gets brought up frequently in our intelligence meetings.

"As the trend develops, we're trying to stay on top of it."

While the nationwide trend of heroin use can be traced back to prescription drug addiction, its presence in the Bakken is indicative of something more sinister, said Timothy Purdon, U.S. attorney for North Dakota.


"We're seeing an increase in organized crime -- when I say organized crime I mean primarily, but not limited to, drug trafficking organizations from out of state that are setting up distribution networks in western North Dakota in the Oil Patch," Purdon said. "So this is a new phenomena over the last 18 months or so."

Prosecutions through the U.S. Attorney's Office increased more than 100 percent from 2009 to 2012, many of which were drug crimes, Purdon said. Heroin distribution charges were new in 2012.

"Heroin really showed up on the (Fort Berthold) Reservation in the summer of 2012," Purdon said. "The FBI targeted it and within nine to 10 months we had indicted -- the first indictment was 22 defendants in Operation Winter's End on heroin distribution. That operation has grown and we're up to in excess of 40 people who have been charged with dealing heroin and meth on and off that reservation."

That's only one investigation. There are other ongoing investigations, Purdon said.

"As the U.S. attorney, when I think about the drugs in western North Dakota, I think two things. I think all of a sudden we're seeing heroin in a way we didn't see it before. There's an increase in heroin traffic here, and No. 2, methamphetamine -- which has always been trafficked here -- continues, but the amounts we're seeing have gone up," Purdon said. "We're not talking about necessarily ounces anymore. We're talking about pounds.

"Both of those things are a reflection on the fact that we have organized groups from outside the state, groups with connections to the Mexican cartels, groups with connections to outlaw motorcycle gangs. Those sorts of entities are starting to see a market in the Oil Patch. Drug dealers follow the money."

The trafficking organizations also bring violence and illegal firearms, Purdon said.

"The level of violence is concerning to me," Purdon said. "We're not necessarily talking about random acts of violence that the average person in Dickinson needs to not go outside about. Certainly the violence is often focused internally with other drug dealers, nevertheless ... it creates risk for the general public as well."


In a highly publicized case prosecuted by Purdon's office, a gang led by Jeffrey Jim "Pops" Butler kidnapped Robert Osterhout, severely beat him and transported him in a plastic-lined car trunk to Montana, where he was left for dead.

But increased crime is hardly an issue contained within the boundaries of the Oil Patch. There have been heroin cases in eastern North Dakota as well, Purdon said.

"About two years ago, we saw an uptick in heroin out east -- in Fargo and Grand Forks -- some overdose deaths and things like that," Purdon said "We really got with our local partners out there and drug task forces and said we want to take a look at this."

The issues in eastern North Dakota could be tied to the increase in prescription drug addiction in Minnesota cities such as Duluth, St. Cloud and the Twin Cities suburbs, Purdon said.

"I think that's a different phenomenon," Purdon said. "You've got a lot of young people addicted and experimenting with prescription drugs. Heroin is the same kind of opiate as oxycodone and things like that."

Heroin is derived from opium, the use of which was prevalent in the West in the 19th century, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Morphine was also derived from opium and lauded as a miracle painkiller through the Civil War, which left many addicted in the late 1800s. Heroin was developed by German scientists at Bayer and marketed as a "nonaddictive" form of morphine and as a cough suppressant. After the nonaddictive claim was proved false and a rise in heroin addiction in the U.S., it was banned by Congress in 1924.

"Because of the nature of it, being so highly addictive, overdoses being common with it and there's such a deadly risk that coincides with those things, obviously, from our end, we're very concerned about it being here," Klauzer said. "We also know that there's a lot of other drugs that are also here that, to an extent, can have the same effect."

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