Source: The Olympian Author: The Associated Press Pubdate: 28 Mar 1998 Contact: DRUG SEARCHES SLOW BORDER CROSSING NORTH BORDER: A new U.S. Customs drug program makes for long waits and yields unlikely suspects. BLAINE - There was little reason to notice an elderly Canadian couple crossing the border into Lynden last month. But when their car was pulled over by U.S. Customs workers as part of a drug-enforcement "block blitz," 20 pounds of high-grade Canadian-grown marijuana was found in their trunk. Officials weren't entirely surprised. Since U.S. Customs initiated its tough new border emphasis in December, they've made dozens of marijuana busts many from unlikely suspects like the elderly couple. Along with the busts have come longer lines of cars at the border - waits that on weekends can stretch for two hours at the Peace Arch crossing in Blaine. Even on a weekday morning this week the line was 45 minutes long, with only two of the station's seven lanes open. The new drug policy "contributes to slower traffic, absolutely," said Eugene Kerven, Customs port director, who also blamed the traffic slowdowns on a shortage of Customs workers. "We just don't have the bodies to open lanes; that's just the way it is," he said. He said the new drug emphasis, called the Customs' "brass; ring" policy, stems from the fact that narcotics enforcement has become the federal agency's top priority. Since January, there have been 29 arrests at the border, said Sgt. Steve DeFries, with the Northwest Regional Drug Task Force, which is run through the Whatcom County Sheriff 's Office. DeFries said that when he took over the drug task force in 1994, he rarely got a referral from Customs. "Now it's not unusual to get three to five a week," he said. "Luckily for us most of the (marijuana) is destined for Southern California." What's triggering the increase, say police and U.S. Customs officials, is the popularity of British Columbia-grown marijuana, which has a high level of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. DeFries said a pound of the marijuana can be purchased in Canada for as little as $1,500 in U.S. funds but can sell for $3,500 in Seattle and $6,000 by the time it gets to Southern California. "The money goes north, the marijuana goes south," DeFries said. "It used to be a half-pound was a lot of marijuana. Now 50 to 100 pounds is not unusual." To combat drug trafficking, Customs is using more drug-sniffing dogs, pulling more cars over for inspections and staging the blitzes in which every car - for a short period of time - is pulled over. Where once officials could spot a suspicious car fairly easily, they say that's no longer the case. Among others arrested recently was a couple with young children in the backseat of their car, a duffel bag full of marijuana between them. "I started in the late 1970s," said Jay Brandt, a Customs official at the Blaine truck crossing. "We knew who we were looking for in narcotics enforcement. We can't do it any more." He also said people are not even trying to hide the contraband, assuming they'll pass through the border unchecked. Brandt said that's one reason why the lines are so slow - workers have to take time to inspect the cars they pull over. "We have to dedicate more resources to the secondary inspection process," he said, "but I hesitate to say we're catching it all." He said less than 2 percent of the 10,000 cars that pass through the Peace Arch each day are pulled over. Drivers who are apprehended risk having their cars seized. To get around that, they often drive rented or leased cars, DeFries said. "They're not stupid," DeFries said. "They know if they drive their fancy Porsche, they'll lose it, so they don't drive it. They drive a throwaway car. It's the price of doing business; they lose the junker."