Troopers making bigger marijuana busts on Utah highways

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Utah Highway Patrol troopers are seizing more marijuana as it makes its way across Utah from Western states that have legalized the drug, authorities said Wednesday.

As recently as a few years ago, highway drug busts generally yielded only a few pounds of marijuana.

“Now we’re seeing more often, 100 pound loads being intercepted, and the intelligence shows that it comes from California, Oregon, and it’s going, usually, to points east” including Minneapolis or other cities, said U.S. Attorney for Utah John Huber.

Overproduction and black-market operations in states where the drug is legal are to blame, Huber said, calling those states “incubators for organized crime.”

And the volume isn’t the only difference. The bigger loads of pot are of higher quality than in the past, Huber and other law enforcement leaders said at a Wednesday news conference, going on to praise Utah troopers and investigators for spotting and halting drug trafficking on Utah roads.

“Ninety percent-plus of what we do focuses on the killer drugs,” including heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine, Huber said, but the boost in marijuana is “a disturbing trend.” He declined to say exactly how much of the intercepted drug came from nearby states, as opposed to other sources, or give a timeline on the reported rise.

Brian Besser, Drug Enforcement Administration special agent in charge in Salt Lake City, said sophisticated drug-trafficking groups from Mexico are making use of lucrative smuggling routes running from the southwest U.S. and through Utah to other parts of the nation.

Besser said the troopers’ work is made more urgent amid an opioid crisis in Utah and other states, followed by problems posed by meth and by “rogue marijuana manufacturing right now, when it comes to Colorado and California.”

Besser and Huber said they believe the heftier marijuana busts are troubling because studies suggest that smoking the drug is harmful, and doing so still is against Utah and federal law.

Huber’s counterpart in Oregon, U.S. Attorney Billy Williams, has said oversupply in his state is a problem and he will make it a priority to enforce trafficking to other states and organized crime.

At the Wednesday news conference, law enforcement leaders said UHP drug busts make Utah safer and often are the first step leading to federal criminal drug prosecutions.

“It’s very dangerous business,” said Utah Department of Public Safety Commissioner Keith Squires, noting that two heavily trafficked interstates, I-70 and I-80, pass through Utah.

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Troopers and State Bureau of Investigations agents, with the help of drug-sniffing dogs, seized several tons of illicit drugs and arrested more than 1,600 people for investigation of felonies over the last five years, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. In 2017, the officers found more than 41 pounds of heroin, 87 pounds of cocaine and 4,500 pounds of marijuana.

Federal drug investigators also have taken notice of UHP’s work.

“They are a model for well-trained, professional and effective criminal interdiction and follow-up investigations,” Tom Gorman, director of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, said in a statement.

By: Annie Knox, Desert News

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