North Dakota Drug Issues Predate The Oil Boom


The media loves to focus on what I generically call the “dark side of the oil boom” stories, particularly in election years when political factions push the narratives for their own gain. We hear about skyrocketing rents. Crime. Traffic. Environmental disasters, some exaggerated and others real.

One particularly troubling narrative is the one about the surge in drug crimes in the Bakken region. Case in point this feature story from the Associated Press about a drug crime operating in the lightly populated rural areas of western North Dakota:

What they uncovered was a large-scale methamphetamine ring that had found a home in a state long known for its small-town solitude, its slow pace and peaceful pastures.

The members of this violent gang were all relative newcomers to Williston. They called themselves “The Family,” the feds say, and were holed up in a few campers tucked behind an innocent-looking, white-frame house.

They had plenty of firepower, too: One of the men had an arsenal of 22 weapons.

Authorities say several “Family” members had abducted and planned to kill one of their own, seeking to enforce their code of silence out of fear he’d spill the group’s secrets.

They assaulted him in a camper in Williston, stuffed him into a plastic-lined car trunk, then beat him again after he escaped. He was left for dead in a Montana field. He wound up, instead, in a North Dakota hospital, telling the FBI his story.

The result: Seven guilty pleas. Prison sentences of up to 20 years. And the dismantling of a drug trafficking ring that sold meth for more than a year in one of the fastest-growing corners of America.

This is certainly very troubling, but is this happening because of the oil boom? Over at Million Dollar Way, Bruce Oksol digs up this Bismarck Tribune article from 2002 about drug use in the Bakken. It reports on a startling surge in meth labs in North Dakota – a “tremendous problem” according to Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem – which occurred about a half-decade before the Bakken oil boom even got started:

“This is the scariest drug I’ve seen in my 16 years at BCI,” said Jerry Kemmet, director of the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation. “The way it’s taken a hold of the population. It’s hard to treat and so addictive.”

State statistics have shown a steady increase in meth labs since the drug began gaining popularity in 1998. The 17 labs seized in 1998 were more than in the previous four years combined. That number nearly tripled in 2000 when 46 labs were seized. The trend has continued to escalate with 89 labs found in 2001 and 101 labs already discovered so far this year. At that rate, more than 260 could be found by the end of the year.

“The number of labs has doubled every year now and looks like it will double or triple next year,” North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said. “There’s no getting around the conclusion that it’s a tremendous problem in North Dakota.”

The oil boom gets blamed for bringing problems with drugs to North Dakota, but that’s not exactly true. There were problems before the oil boom came along.

Spiking populations – specially given the demographics which skew toward younger, more crime-prone citizens, more on that here – and intense media scrutiny on the oil boom may be making these issues more visible, but you can’t ignore this important context.

Context that usually is missing from most news reports about oil patch crime.