Drug Traffickers Find Montana Attractive, Law Officials Say
HELENA, Mont. (AP) _ Wide open spaces, sparse law enforcement and a 580-mile-long international border have combined to make Montana increasingly popular with illegal drug traffickers, state and federal officials say.
Drug activity in the state has at least tripled in the past five years, says Larry Barnes, resident agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Great Falls.
The amount of drugs coming into Montana has outstripped population growth, which indicates not only greater use by state residents, but also the state’s growing popularity as a pipeline for moving drugs elsewhere, says Gary Carrell, chief of the state Criminal Investigation Bureau.
Carrell estimated that as many as six international organizations specializing in illegal drug sales have high-level officials living and operating in Montana.
″We’re not talking about the Cosa Nostra or the Mafia, but these are businesses organized to sell drugs for a profit,″ he said recently.
In addition to drug sales, ″we are finding that organized drug trafficking elements are moving to Montana and purchasing property to launder drug money,″ Barnes said. ″We’re talking about highly sophisticated trafficking organizations.″
And, Montana has a ″more apathetic population (willing) to accept illegal drug money to stimulate local economies and not wanting to recognize where it came from,″ Barnes said.
Authorities say Montana’s most prominent drugs are cocaine and marijuana.
″Cocaine in commercial quantities can be purchased in every major city in Montana and even in many smaller communities,″ Barnes said.
″The availability of cocaine has become astronomical in the last five years,″ prompting better quality and lower prices, he said. Four years ago, an ounce cost $2,600 and was less than 50 percent pure. Now the cost is $1,500 with a purity of 80 percent.
The proximity to Canada plays a key role in Montana drug traffic, officials say.
Carrell believes about 20 percent of the cocaine deals in Montana involve Canada, where sellers can obtain a higher price for their product.
Moving illegal drugs into Canada is easy with the long border and remote crossing stations, Carrell said. A national motorcycle gang plans to open a chapter in Montana within the next year to have better access to Canada, he said.
A year ago, agents nabbed a man who allegedly smuggled 1,000 pounds of marijuana into Canada every month.
But Barnes said the most common practice is for Canadians to come to Montana to buy drugs and return north to sell them.
″That’s not unique to Montana; it’s the same for all states along the border,″ although Montana gets more than its share, according to Barnes.
Tom King, director of law enforcement for the U.S. Forest Service Northern Region headquarters in Missoula, sees another side. Marijuana growers driven out of northern California and Oregon by law enforcement campaigns are migrating to more remote areas of Idaho and Montana, he said.
″It’s definitely a big business,″ King said of the use of national forest land for cultivating marijuana. Growers are becoming more sophisticated in camouflaging, maintaining and protecting their large plantations from police and ″patch pirates,″ he said.
And a trend to move marijuana plants indoors to avoid Montana’s harsh climate makes discovery even more difficult, Carrell added.
With the 1987 marijuana harvest season just passed, officers have thus far found 1,170 plants on national forest land in Montana and northern Idaho, but that is less than half last year’s figure, King said. The confiscated plants were worth an estimated $3.5 million and 21 people were arrested, he said.
Law enforcement officials hope a new four-member state undercover drug team, just started in Missoula, will boost efforts to control drug traffic. A similar unit in Billings has produced more than 380 arrests since 1982.
But more is needed, Carrell said. ″Law enforcement won’t solve the problem. People themselves are going to have to decide not to use drugs.″