by Gene Johnson, The Associated Press
BLAINE, Wash., Whatcom County From the window of a
U.S. Customs Service helicopter, the man in charge of
White House drug policy surveys a section of the
world's longest open border, from the sparkling green
waters of Boundary Bay to the clear-cut ridges of the
Marijuana smugglers are increasingly likely to turn
to these areas as the government beefs up its staffing
at traditional border crossings as part of the war on
terrorism, he said.
The man, John Walters, director of the Office of
National Drug Control policy, is making it a priority
to stop them.
Marijuana especially the high-potency pot
grown in the hydroponic indoor gardens of British
Columbia is a far greater danger, and far more
addictive, than most Americans realize, he said.
Walters was in Blaine yesterday, the largest
northern point of entry west of Detroit, for briefings
with a bevy of law-enforcement agents, including some
from the U.S. Border Patrol, the Immigration and
Nationalization Service, the Royal Canadian Mounted
Police and the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office.
Customs has about 190 full-time employees working
the border in Washington and is scheduled to receive
81 more, plus two trained in handling drug dogs.
Drug seizures have increased markedly along the
Washington border in recent years. In fiscal 2001,
7,582 pounds of marijuana were seized at the border in
Blaine nearly twice as much as the year
Walters said he wanted to learn what
law-enforcement agencies are doing in the Northwest
and to see from the air the terrain and other
obstacles they face. The helicopter's pilot, Mitch
Pribble, was eager to show him.
As the helicopter took off from Bellingham
International Airport, Pribble pointed to scores of
boats docked at one of the area's many marinas.
Imagine, he said, trying to determine which are
legitimate pleasure craft and which are being used to
run drugs. Banking the chopper and heading inland, he
pointed to Lake Whatcom, where a float plane from
Canada had recently been caught landing with 120
pounds of marijuana.
Farther east, over the foothills of the Cascade
Range, smugglers have started using snowmobiles to
ferry drugs across the border, he said.
Still, most of the marijuana coming south and
cocaine going north crosses at regular border
crossings much of it in large commercial trucks
often outfitted with fake floors or walls.
"It used to be unheard of to get a 100-pound load.
Now a 500-pound load is not unheard of," Pribble
In the winter, one truck stopped at the border had
34 hockey bags totaling 1,475 pounds of pot mixed in
with its legitimate cargo, cases of Foster's beer,
said Roy Hoffman, the agent in charge of Customs in
Technology, including X-ray machines and
drug-residue swabs, has helped increase the number of
busts, authorities said. Thirty-two cameras have
monitored the border between Washington and Canada for
about the last year and a half, and authorities have
also placed motion-sensor devices in remote areas.
Still, having so many drug busts puts a strain on
local law enforcement, Whatcom County Sheriff Dale
Brandland said. "My jail's full," with 220 people in a
facility fit for 148, he said, adding the overcrowding
was due to drug prosecutions.
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Local judges and politicians are starting to talk
about easing up on people convicted of marijuana
charges, the sheriff said. Walters replied: "I regret
to hear that. ... I will tell you that during this
administration we are not going to give up."