Big pharmacies knock on door of oil-rich North Dakota

Thu Sep 4, 2014 8:22am EDT
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By Ernest Scheyder

BISMARCK N.D. (Reuters) - North Dakota's oil boom has fueled a construction bonanza for new supermarkets, restaurants and clothing stores. But try finding a Rite Aid, Walgreens or other national pharmacy chain in the state, the fastest-growing economy in the nation, and you'll be largely out of luck.

That could all change with a controversial Nov. 4 ballot initiative in which voters will get to decide for the first time whether to abolish a 1963 state law designed to protect small businesses. The law requires North Dakota pharmacies to be owned by local pharmacists or run by hospitals with a local pharmacist on staff.

Supporters of the initiative argue it will remove an embarrassing anachronism, give consumers more choice and lower prescription drug costs.

Opponents say that allowing national chains would destroy North Dakota's tradition of personalized pharmacy care and be yet another example of how the state's neighborly way of life is changing too fast. Canada, Germany, France and many other countries, they also note, have similar laws requiring local pharmacy ownership.

"Independent pharmacies are more apt to focus on customer service," said Gabe Gretz, who bought Service Drug Pharmacy in Williston last year with his father. "This is our bread and butter. It's not just a hobby for us."

"North Dakota Nice" is a truism here, not an irony, and most retail stores are still prohibited from opening before noon on Sunday - a throwback to laws designed to encourage family time.

    Yet since the oil boom began around 2010, drawing thousands of new residents to jobs where roughnecks can earn more than $100,000 a year, drug use, assault and other violent crimes have jumped.

    Recent sex-trafficking charges brought against an oil field worker in Williston, a once quiet town that is now the epicenter of the boom, marked the first charges of that type ever filed in the area and has escalated tension between new and old residents.   Continued...

A worker stocks a new Walgreens store in Chicago, Illinois in this January 9, 2012 file photo. North Dakota's oil boom has fueled a construction bonanza for new supermarkets, restaurants and clothing stores. REUTERS/John Gress/Files