| BISMARCK, N.D., Sept 4
BISMARCK, N.D., Sept 4 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
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
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
"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
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
CONVENIENCE VS. CUSTOMER CARE
Many newly arrived oil workers, and even some locals, say
they hope the ballot measure passes so that they can use the
same chains they've grown accustomed to elsewhere.
Rite Aid Corp has no outpost in the state, North
Dakota's Walmarts have no in-store pharmacies and the
state's lone Walgreens, on the Minnesota border, is
prohibited from selling prescription drugs.
CVS is able to operate only a handful of pharmacies
in North Dakota thanks to a 2006 buyout of several Osco Drug
stores that operated before the 1963 law.
"Honestly, it's not convenient getting my prescriptions
here," said Jan Anseth, a resident of Williston who spends
winters in Arizona where she gets her medications from a
national chain. In North Dakota, Anseth says, she runs into
problems transferring prescriptions and getting anything more
than a 30-day supply.
The ballot's primary sponsor, North Dakotans For Lower
Pharmacy Prices, was funded with $168,000 in contributions from
Walmart, Walgreens, Kmart and others.
In campaign materials, the group cites data the Kaiser
Family Foundation compiled in 2009 showing North Dakota has one
of the highest per capita costs for prescription drug and
medical devices in the country.
Walmart says North Dakotans are missing out on its popular
$4 prescription program, which makes many generic drugs
available at the sharply discounted price.
Crying foul, the state's independent pharmacists say they're
able to often meet or beat prices from national chains, most of
whom lose money on pharmacy sales as a way to get customers in
A random survey by Reuters of North Dakota's independent
pharmacies showed that a 30-day supply of the generic blood
thinning drug clopidogrel ranged in price between $10 and
$59.95. A CVS in Bismarck, the state capital, quoted a price of
$149.95 for the same dosage.
"I get to set the prices here at my pharmacy," said Jenna
Wahlstrom, a pharmacist at Larsen Service Drug, which her
grandfather founded in Watford City in 1952. "It's not a
Like the big chains, Wahlstrom offers her customers a
smartphone app and online refill ordering. Her pharmacy has
transferred hundreds of prescriptions from retail chains for
workers who have moved to the state, she said.
Ahead of the vote, the state's top politicians are declining
to take sides.
Governor Jack Dalrymple, a Republican who took office in
2010, says he shops at locally owned Aerohead Plaza Drug while
in Bismarck and believes it has been able to compete effectively
with the nearby CVS.
Yet in the 1990s, as a state legislator, Dalrymple voted to
keep the pharmacy law intact.
"I don't know," he now says, "if that was the right vote."
(Reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Editing by Terry Wade, Jill
Serjeant and Eric Beech)