Drug traffickers using Kansas highways to move their products

There’s a good chance illegal drugs smuggled into the United States from Mexico will travel through Kansas, and maybe Lawrence, on their way to the East Coast, according to a recently released federal report.

“Kansas is kind of that gateway,” said Lt. Scott Herrington, spokesman for the Kansas Highway Patrol, which monitors Kansas highways.

The National Drug Intelligence Center released the 2011 National Drug Threat Assessment recently — which identifies how illegal drugs flow into, and then around, the United States.

Interstates 70 and 35 play a prominent role in drug trafficking, according to the report. Both highways are listed as major trafficking routes for marijuana, heroin and cocaine. Kansas City, where I-70 and I-35 converge, was cited as a major hub in drug trafficking trends. The report details how drugs smuggled into Texas and California make their way east and north, through Kansas, on their way to Chicago and other eastern parts of the country.

While illegal drugs might travel through Lawrence on I-70, it’s less clear what role — if any — Lawrence plays in the larger international drug trade.

Sgt. Steve Lewis, Douglas County Sheriff’s Office spokesman, said deputies in their Intensive Criminal Enforcement Unit monitor I-70 aggressively for illegal drugs.

“Stopping the flow of illegal drugs through Douglas County is a high priority for the team,” Lewis said.

But Lewis and Herrington said they didn’t have specific details about whether Lawrence is a hub, or major stopping point, for smugglers.

Curbing the flow of illegal drugs through the state is often a combined effort among state, federal and local law enforcement, Herrington said. One example is the I-135/I-70 Drug Task Force organized by the Saline and Dickinson County Sheriff’s Offices, formed in 1993. Since then, the task force has seized more than $55 million worth of illegal drugs.

One trend in Kansas is an increase in the amount of marijuana seized by the Kansas Highway Patrol, which nearly doubled between 2008 and 2010, up to more than 13,000 pounds last year.

Herrington also said officers are seeing other roads — such as Kansas Highway 4 and U.S. Highway 36 — utilized by smugglers trying to avoid law enforcement.

Regardless of how much they seize, it’s an uphill battle stopping drug traffickers, Herrington said.

“As soon as a trooper makes an arrest, there’s more coming,” he said.

By Shaun Hittle

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