Substance Abuse Alert: Policing the drug trade

BISMARCK, N.D. - The illegal drug trade is booming in Bismarck and Mandan, and law enforcement says most of us have no idea how out of control the problem has become.

We begin a three part series examining why drug use has escalated, where drug deals are taking place and were all the narcotics are coming from.

We were given exclusive access to the metro narcotics task force.

It's a co-op between the state Bureau of Criminal investigations, Morton and Burleigh county Sheriff's Offices and Bismarck and Mandan Police.

Eight officers, some undercover, are responsible for putting drug dealers behind bars, and taking drugs off our streets. For their protection, we've masked the faces and voices of the officers.

It's a jarring scene that's becoming more common in our area.

Agents with the narcotics task force execute 1 to 2 raids every week in the Bismarck/Mandan area.

The execution of this single search warrant netted $120,000 of meth. And that's a snowflake in the blizzard. So far this year the task force has confiscated 28 pounds of meth, with a street value of $2.5 million. That's a more than 200 percent increase over all of 2016.

Two hundred and fifty pounds of marijuana has been confiscated, worth $2.25 million dollars, a more than 300 percent increase from all of last year.

"We're seeing a huge increase in heroin that we've never seen before. If we go back five, six years, heroin was almost not existent," metro-area drug task force agent.

Dramatic increases in hash, LSD, prescriptions pills, and fentanyl seizures are also being seen.

Its what's going unseen that's concerning to the state bureau of criminal investigations, and task force members.

Most people think the drug trade happens away from eyes, under the cover of night in dark alleywa, but most often agents tell us deals happen in public view, in places you likely visit all the time. Like retail parking lots.

"Where ever there are cameras and people, these people do drug deals, that way they know they're going to be safe, they use the public as their safety mechanism," said metro-area drug task force agent.

This takedown was set up in broad daylight in a busy parking lot North of Bismarck. A wired informant went in to make the deal, and as soon as the cash was exchanged, undercover agents rushed in to make the arrest.

The hope is arrests like this one, lead to more.

"Somebody who is using is not the top guy, so we have to put a lot of time and effort into working our way up the ladder."

At the top of that ladder, the task force often finds out of state dealers.

"These guys come out from a large city, like a Minneapolis, a Chicago. You know you can buy meth and heroin at a substantially lower price, and then you can come out here and you can triple and quadruple your money on it, and that's really what they're taking advantage of," said metro-area drug task force agent.

The task force says many of those dealers first came to North Dakota during the oil boom.

"A light was shown on us, they didn't know they could exploit us. Now they know that, so I think that up-tick is continuing now."

Now, agents are hoping to turn the tables by, shining a light on the issue of drugs in our community. Arming the public with knowledge.

These statistics are only Morton and Burleigh counties. There are about a dozen similar drug task force operations throughout the state. These officers say the most important thing residents can do is to be aware of their surroundings, and report any suspected drug activity.