Drug overdoses nationwide are higher than ever before based on provisional data from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. Drug overdose deaths in the United States for the 12-month period ending April 2021 are estimated at 100,306, a 28.5% increase over the same time period from the year before.

“I’m not going to lie. I’ve had family members. They are opioid addicts,” said Dawn White, supervisory lead agent with MHA Division of Drug Enforcement. “I’ve talked and met so many individuals. They never aspired to be this. They never aspired at all. Fentanyl is just a drug. Opioids are just a drug that you become an addict before you realize you’re an addict.”

And it’s an addiction that’s becoming increasingly more deadly across the U.S. and right here in North Dakota. In September, the Drug Enforcement Administration issued a public safety alert warning of criminal drug networks that are mass-producing counterfeit pills and marketing them as actual prescription medication. 

“The ones we’re seizing the most of are the fake, what they call blues. B-L-U-E-S. M8 is the marking on them,” said Mike Bolme, a sergeant with the Bismarck Police Department. “And they’re fake prescription medications. So the vast majority of them are fake and the vast majority of those contain some form of fentanyl.”

The DEA says, of the fake pills it has seized, the number containing fentanyl has jumped more than four hundred percent since 2019. And DEA lab testing reveals that two out of every five pills laced with fentanyl contain a potentially deadly dose, a dose small enough to fit on the tip of a pencil. 

“Counting the numbers is one thing. There are so many overdoses that happen that never get counted,” said Rick Volk, assistant United States attorney.

In North Dakota, DEA investigators seized 10,000 counterfeit pills last year. That figure was surpassed in the first eight months of 2021 with a total of 10,500 pills seized.

“Most of the pills that we see are actually now pressed or clandestinely made pills coming across the Southern border, and then being distributed by other persons.,” said Volk. “What we primarily see in North Dakota, are individuals who come from the state of Michigan or Las Vegas or California with those clandestinely made or pressed, counterfeit pills.”

Drug traffickers are traveling to North Dakota from other parts of the country, particularly the Detroit area, driven by higher profit margins from drug sales. And reservations have been particularly hit hard

“Make no doubt, in Indian country, drugs take a heavy toll,” said Mark Fox, MHA Nation tribal chairman.

Earlier this year, the DEA issued a news release identifying alleged members of a Detroit drug pipeline that targeted several North Dakota Native American reservations. 

“Because of energy development, we had a lot of outsiders that come in and a lot of workers, a lot of economic activity. And so we’ve become a prime market for the sale of illegal drugs and we’ve been that way for over a decade,” said Fox.

He said high demand and larger profit margins draw traffickers to the area, but the problem can also be traced back to broader social issues.

“It’s a mental health issue for our people. There’s historical trauma that exists in each and every one of us as Native Americans going way back to things done to us,”” said Fox.

Ted Sandberg is a former Detroit prosecutor turned Grand Forks defense attorney.

“I had one client who, for instance, had never even so much as had a drop of alcohol. He was a fantastic athlete. He took one pill and his life went sideways almost instantly. It can be very frustrating,” said Sandberg.

Since returning to North Dakota in 2009, he estimates he’s worked more than a thousand opioid-related cases.  

“There’s the old joke. There’s no such thing as a retirement home for drug dealers, and it applies to this. There’s almost no interest in not coming out here as long as there’s money and customers,” said Sandberg.

Figures show that in Bismarck, as in much of the country, numbers continue to climb. The number of recorded overdoses and deaths this year have already surpassed full-year 2020 totals. 

“My hope is that this pipeline will dry up and my hope is that the Michigan law enforcement will maybe take care of it at the source. That’s what I’m hoping,” said Sandberg. “I hope the best for my clients and I do the best for my clients, but I’m still a North Dakotan and I’d really like to see them take care of this problem. So that’s my opinion on it,” he added.

MHA Nation has taken a series of steps to tackle the issue, including adopting a resolution banning known traffickers from the Fort Berthold reservation and opening a recovery center in 2018 to help those seeking treatment.

White urges those battling an addiction to take a step of their own. 

“Go get help. Your family needs you. Your family needs you, and there’s too many resources we have available. All it is is just asking. Just making that decision to say I don’t want to do this anymore, and we’ll help you. Even though we have a job to do, we’ll still help you,” said White.

Through August 30th of this year, MHA Nation has recorded 47 overdoses. Five of those overdoses resulted in death. Both the number of overdoses and deaths are less than half the full-year totals for 2020, which stand at 108 and 12, respectively. While this year’s figures are incomplete, it appears that both overdoses and deaths are down when compared with 2020 numbers.

Bolme with the Bismarck Police Department wants to remind everyone of the Good Samaritan law, which provides protection from criminal prosecution if you seek medical assistance for someone who is overdosing, remain on scene, and cooperate with that person’s medical treatment.