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Zeroing in on Border Pot Smugglers

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 Cascade foothills.

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 before.

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 said.

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 Blaine.

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.

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."

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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