Project Safe Bakken aims to control drug issues in Montana, North Dakota.


According to MoneyRates.com, North Dakota topped a list of Best States for Young Adults in 2013, likely due in part to the availability of jobs. But along with the ease of finding high-paying jobs, the state is also home to some growing issues with drug use and drug trafficking, prompting the Project Safe Bakken initiative to take hold in 2013.

Project Safe Bakken combines the efforts of public safety organizations across Montana and North Dakota, joining the forces of United States Attorneys, the FBI, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Department of Homeland Security and all local law enforcement. 

The drug causing the most concern in the oil-heavy region of Montana and North Dakota? Methamphetamines. 

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Meth is “the number one priority hands down,” according to Sgt. Brian Korell, who works in Billings for the Eastern Montana High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) – one of 28 such areas in the U.S., created by Congress with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988. These programs provide assistance to federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies operating in areas determined to be critical drug-trafficking regions.

According to published reports, in 2013 a dozen people were indicted in Billings on federal charges alleging they were involved in a ring that distributed methamphetamines in the Bakken oil patch and in other cities and towns across Montana. The drug ring was broken up by authorities working to curtail rising crime rates in the oil patch.

Experts surmise that those in the drug trade are quickly recognizing the Bakken as a fresh opportunity to make money. And some believe those drugs are coming straight from Mexico. 

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According to Korell, drugs “are a very pervasive problem in our community,” and, he adds, “The drugs that we intercept almost 100 percent … are coming from Mexico.”

And while Korell’s jurisdiction doesn’t specifically cover the Bakken he notes that the region, in addition to Billings, is falling victim to the same perpetrators.

“A lot of people try to link [drugs] to the Bakken…but a significant portion is here in Billings.” The Billings metropolitan area is home to about 105,000 people. “Naturally, we’re a hub,” he says.

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“Last year and this year were kind of break-out years in terms of drug seizures,” Korell says. “We seized about 30 pounds of meth last year,” he says, which he called a very large haul, more than double the previous year. They also made more than 140 arrests (federal indictments and criminal arrests) and confiscated 65 firearms, Korell says, noting that many crimes against people and property are a direct result of methamphetamine usage.

Since trafficking and usage is so widespread, Korell says, “We need to prioritize our resources as best we can. … I care where it’s going and where it’s coming from.”

Still, it’s a pervasive, seemingly unending problem. And, Korell admits, that when they take one dealer down, “there is always someone waiting in the wings.”

Korell is proud of the work his group does, but realizes they can go only so far. “We need more money and more people, but we’re doing very good work with the resources we have.” 

Korell says sometimes he wonders if HIDTA – and other more politically motivated groups like Project Safe Bakken – are making a difference. “But how do you gauge that?” he wonders.

In addition to the work on the HIDTA, last year, in part due to the work of Project Safe Bakken, a 47-year-old from North Dakota was sentenced to 14 years in prison and five years’ supervised release tied to drug possession of pure methamphetamine with the intent to distribute. The U.S. Attorney for the state was cited in a press release this year noting, “This case demonstrates the serious sort of drug trafficking at play in the Bakken oilfields.” 

In December 2014, a 25-year-old man was sentenced to five years in federal prison for distributing methamphetamine. His supplier, who lives in Washington state, is serving a 20-year federal sentence for his role as the leader of an interstate drug ring that stretched from western Washington to eastern Montana and the Bakken oilfields of the Northern Plains.

On-the-job testing

How do energy companies approach the drug problem? According to BakkenBlog.com, drug testing is required by almost all employers in the North Dakota (and other Bakken states’) hiring process, and often, drug testing is done randomly as well. Third-party companies such as Bakken Staffing exist to conduct such screenings. Still, testing alone doesn’t seem to quell the persistent problems. 

Contacted last year, Laura McRae, founder of the Web portal Synergy Station, said the drug problem was overwhelming. And, like Korell, she calls Billings “kind of a gateway community.

“It’s almost like a perfect storm coming together,” she said, noting that the combination of loneliness, long hours, lots of money and not enough community activities is a recipe for such issues. Injured workers are also often tempted to self-medicate with illegal ­­– and easily accessible ­ – drugs.


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