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Oil patch county to get Federal resources for fighting drugs

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WILLISTON, N.D. — The White House’s director of drug control policy says Williams County, in the heart of North Dakota’s Oil Patch, will be designated later this month as part of the federal government’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program.

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The designation will open up the area to “significant” federal resources to help national, state and local officials combat drug trafficking and abuse in the area, U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s office stated in a news release Thursday.

The announcement follows a July visit to western North Dakota by R. Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House’s Office of Drug Control Policy, at Heitkamp’s invitation. She said it’s clear that the meetings they had in North Dakota helped the Obama administration “understand the seriousness of these drug issues and push them to take action.

“This federal designation for Williams County is an important first step to helping stem the tide of drug abuse in the area,” Heitkamp said in the release.

Williams County Sheriff Scott Busching said he’s “cautiously optimistic” the designation will mean more resources to fight drug trafficking, which he says has increased “simply because we have more population” and more people from out-of-state coming and going, some of them bringing drugs to the area.

Busching said the FBI already has two agents spending time in the county. The bureau has indicated it would like to station two agents there permanently, but a lack of office space and housing and the area’s high rental rates are barriers, he said.

The number of sworn deputies in the sheriff’s office has more than doubled in the past five years, and Busching said there are times when he could use more. The increase in calls for service hasn’t left much time for routine beat checks, working with schools or other proactive measures, he said.

“We’ve become a reaction force where we’re just chasing calls, wrecks and fights,” he said.

Still, Busching said the situation isn’t as bleak as some media reports have made it out to be.

“We are experiencing growing pains, but it’s not any different than any other place that’s growing,” he said.

Burleigh, Cass, Grand Forks, Morton, Ramsey, Richland, Walsh, and Ward counties in North Dakota also are included in the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program.

The Drug Control Policy office currently has 28 High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas operating in 16 percent of the nation’s counties and covering about 60 percent of the U.S. population, according to the White House. Nationwide, the program currently funds 681 initiatives, including multi-agency investigations and prosecutions, intelligence sharing and drug-use prevention and treatment.

In addition to the drug-trafficking area designation, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration has assigned a special agent to Bismarck who has begun working with partners in the region, Kerlikowske reported in a Nov. 7 letter to Heitkamp. Kerlikowske said his office also continues to work with the White House’s Domestic Policy Council to determine what other federal resources can be directed to the region.

He applauded the efforts made by North Dakota law enforcement agencies, tribes, health care professionals and educators to address the public health and criminal justice issues in the Bakken.

“I agree that while the challenges are vast, progress can be achieved through collaborative efforts with state and local partners,” his letter stated.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., also hosted Kerlikowske in Billings, Mont., during his July visit.

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