Dickinson leaders told U.S. Sen. John Hoeven on Wednesday that a federal law enforcement presence in the city may be necessary to help address the state’s growing opioid epidemic.
Drug crime has become increasingly more complex and organized in western North Dakota in the past three years, Dickinson Mayor Scott Decker said, relaying information Southwest Narcotics Task Force leaders told the Dickinson City Commission on Monday at their regular meeting.
“For us, what would be nice is to have that federal presence,” Decker said. “A lot of this stuff is going to end up in federal jurisdiction.”
Task Force members said Monday that the city has become “the stop” for drug runners coming out of Denver, Chicago and as far away as Mexico.
Methamphetamine and heroin laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid shipped to the U.S. from countries like China, are the top concerns of drug task force leaders in western North Dakota.
Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican, said this week he introduced new legislation that would close a loophole that currently allows synthetic drugs to enter the U.S.
The Illegal Synthetic Drug Safety Act of 2016, which Hoeven co-sponsored with Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., would change a law that allows overseas companies to sell the drugs in the U.S. by labeling the products as “not safe for human consumption.”
Hoeven said the legislation has been endorsed by the National Law Enforcement Association and drug companies.
“Our laws have to catch up with the new types of drugs that are out there on the market,” he said.
Decker also pressed for more law enforcement funding, and spoke about the Southwest Narcotics Task Force’s worries that their agents will become overworked by the continuing rise in in-depth narcotics investigations during the roundtable.
“One of their biggest issues is the funding and getting the level of law enforcement they need — the experienced law enforcement they need to combat this type of sale,” Decker said. “They need a certain type of person — a certain type of agent with the right experience.”
Dickinson City Administrator Shawn Kessel pointed to the perceived decrease in narcotics seizures and arrests by the Southwest Narcotics Task Force agents this year, saying instead of arresting low-level drug offenders, the agents are effectively triaging their caseload and focusing on high-profile cases.
“If you look at a simple statistical way of measuring success, it’s going to look like we have less of a problem,” Kessel said. “That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Airport officials ask for Hoeven’s support
Officials from the Dickinson Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport reiterated their need for Hoeven’s support at the federal level as they try to continue providing commercial air service after United Airlines announced in June its intention to ends its flights into Dickinson.
Hoeven said he has requested that the U.S. Department of Transportation expedite approval of the airport’s Essential Air Service designation to ensure commercial service to the airport.
When United announced it wanted to pull out, the airport was under the impression the airline would apply for federal EAS designation, which would federally fund its flights into Dickinson. It has yet to do that.
“We’ve done this before,” Hoeven said. “We don’t want to go work to approve someone for air service that doesn’t fit what you want.”
Airport manager Kelly Braun said he has been “working diligently” to try and get both United and other airlines to submit proposals for EAS to the DOT.
“Any help we can get from your office to persuade airlines to give proposals to the DOT would be helpful,” Braun told Hoeven.
Braun said United was issued a stay order to continue providing service to the airport past the Sept. 30 date for an EAS provider to be in place.
“They have a stay order that’ll prevent them from pulling out of the market until an EAS provider is selected,” he said.
The airport is also seeking to rebuild its runway by 2020 due to its inability to accommodate the 50-passenger planes that currently fly into the airport.
Along with that, Dickinson Airport Authority Chairman Jon Frantsvog said more airlines — including any that would serve Dickinson through the EAS program — are discontinuing their use of 50-seaters in favor of 70-passenger jets. That’ll only further deteriorate the runway, he said.
“The key is to get the FAA dialed in,” Hoeven said, adding the Federal Aviation Administration has been traditionally open to providing financial support for runway upgrade projects. “… We’ll make the case based on aircraft, saying we’ve got to get this runway transitioned as the airlines transition to 70-passenger aircraft.”