California harvest fuels pot busts on I-80 |

California harvest fuels pot busts on I-80

Patrick Parkinson, Of the Record staff

Troopers said they seized more than $2 million worth of potent marijuana from mostly California drug traffickers in 16 traffic stops in Summit County last week.

"What makes it a valuable number is because it’s high-grade marijuana," Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Steve Salas said, adding that officers smelled pot in many cases. "We have seizures throughout the year that are 500 pounds or 800 pounds just from one traffic stop coming out of Mexico. It’s just not the same quality."

Roads in Utah are frequently used to transport illegal drugs as cannabis harvested in northern California moves east, Utah Highway Patrol Lt. Steve Winward said. Moving pot grown in California often means transporting the drugs along Interstate 80, which stretches across the country to New York, he explained.

"I-80 and I-70 are the major corridors east west in Utah, so they focused on I-80 this time," Winward said. "I’m assuming there are going to be more enforcement blitzes like this in the future in different areas. But usually they don’t like to advertise it before it happens."

Drugs seized last week were headed to Florida, New York, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming and Ohio, said Salas, who helped supervise the enforcement blitz.

Resourceful smugglers tried to hide drugs in special compartments. But officers seized about 220 pounds of marijuana and 55 pounds of cocaine and arrested 19 suspects in four days in Summit County, Salas said, adding that a similar operation could occur in 2008.

"It was an exciting week," he said, adding that more than $70,000 in cash was also confiscated from alleged traffickers. "Some of the cases were the result of speeding citations, some are equipment violations and signaling violations."

Between Tuesday and Friday troopers trained to recognize drug smugglers stopped about 200 vehicles for traffic violations, he said.

Officers had probable cause to stop the cars, Winward insisted, adding that "usually then there are some inconsistent statements and things like that."

"We will conduct these operations about three or four times a year on different interstates throughout the state that are known drug corridors," Salas said. "These project dates fell the same time as the marijuana harvest coming out of northern California. Like any harvest, it occurs late August, early September."

"Sometimes we will go an entire operation without a seizure," Salas said, adding that most of last week’s suspects were from outside the state. "Sometimes we’ll have an operation with three or four seizures."

The drugs were hidden in luggage and special compartments, Winward said.

"We found one load in a compartment built under the rear seat of a Ford SUV," Salas said, adding that most stops occurred last week on eastbound I-80 between Wanship and Echo.

Dogs helped troopers sniff out narcotics from inside the cars, he said.

"A lot of the troopers who work in that area see drugs routinely on that corridor," Salas said.

Special training helps officers recognize "known drug indicators," he said.

"A lot of these smugglers are unemployed. They don’t have a job. But they’re in a rented vehicle or a borrowed vehicle," Salas explained.

The Summit County Attorney’s Office will review most of last week’s cases, he said, adding that two alleged seizures could be prosecuted federally.

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