On the frontlines of fighting the drug trade: Meet the Special Agent overseeing North Dakota

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In 2018, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration established its 23rd field division, and North Dakota became a part of it.

In three years, there have been three different leaders at the helm combatting drug trafficking in the region. In an exclusive interview, we sat down with the latest Special Agent in Charge to discuss the drugs plaguing the state, his goals, and if he’s here to stay.

“I’d seen the effect of drugs in family members and friends,” said Special Agent in Charge Justin King.

King says he was pushed to be on the frontlines of the fight against drugs after he watched the lives of people around him be ruined. 19 years ago he started with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and as of February, he oversees the Omaha Field Division. It’s comprised of 11 offices in the five-state region, including Bismarck and Fargo.

“We’ve always had offices in the five states which make up our division,” King explained.

“But as we saw the threat in the upper midwest part of the country grow, and the amount of methamphetamines, opioids, [we made] it into a division to bring more resources to the area.”

After a turnover rate of three SACs in three years, we asked King if he plans on staying longer than a year.

“Yes,” he responded. “That’s the first question I was asked by many people…I’ve moved a lot but I’ve always been somewhere 3-5 years. Five years will probably be mandatory retirement.”

When we sat down with the former Special Agent in Charge, Richard Salter, over a year ago, he said fake Oxycodone pills (often laced with Fentanyl) were the biggest issue. We’ve told you about these. Agents with the Narcotics Task Force in Bismarck have seized well over 4,000 in the last six months.

King says things have changed in some ways since then.

He added, “When COVID really locked everything down, as transportation and people stopped moving, the ability for the Mexican drug cartels, specifically, to get drugs into the United States really went down.”

However, production continued as usual.

“…A huge stockpile was created south of the border, and so as everything opened back up, we’ve had record seizures starting to come in,” King continued.

He says a couple of years ago, local taskforces would report seizing ounces at a time. Now, it’s pounds. Plus, these pills are cheap to make and easy to conceal.

King couldn’t provide any statistics that would shed light on their prominence in North Dakota but said the threat is imminent.

“In the more metropolitan areas, we’ve started to see the pills uptick…You’re usually six to eight to 10 months behind, and what I’m seeing right now, just the early on blips is it’s concerning,” he shared. “It’s coming here, it’s already here in some areas.”

King worries that these pills are enticing people who wouldn’t usually consider street drugs.

On top of that, Fentanyl, in any form, is becoming more common all the time.

“We’re seeing deaths now with people who think they’re using cocaine and it’s got Fentanyl it, and they’re dying from it,” King added.

So what can we do?

“For all the years I’ve been doing this, when people ask me, ‘What is the most important thing?’ I say it’s to keep people from ever doing drugs, specifically our children,” King said.

Today’s kids are of a generation that is exposed younger and younger. King says adults should talk openly about the dangers of drugs.

Drug Take Back Day is this Saturday: a time and place for people to properly dispose of prescriptions they no longer need. Some locations in North Dakota allow this year-round.

Click here to find a site near you.

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