Hashish upsurge baffling

August 21, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON AHB — WASHINGTON -- An apparent surge in the smuggling of hashish across the Pacific has left federal officials baffled and troubled by what some fear may be a new effort to market the drug in the United States, according to law enforcement sources.

In the past several weeks alone, federal authorities patrolling off the West Coast have intercepted many times more hashish than the nation's entire estimated annual consumption of the concentrated marijuana derivative, officials say.

Authorities say they have not yet uncovered any signs that large quantities of the drug have become available on American streets. But the unprecedented offshore discoveries have begun to shatter a previous assumption among anti-drug officers that hashish posed little threat in the United States.

"Something's going to happen," one top law enforcement official warns. "There are just too many boats coming too close to the United States."

American drug users have long demonstrated a preference for marijuana over hashish, a resinous substance typically smoked in a pipe. Hashish generally has been so scarce in the United States that drug enforcement officials often do not include it in their standard compilations of statistics.

But in the first of two seizures last month, authorities intercepted 100 tons of Pakistani hashish -- more than twice the previous record -- in a vessel near Hawaii. Officials then confiscated another 12 tons of the drug from a schooner off the coast of the Pacific Northwest.

The unexpected findings have sparked a sharp debate among federal officials, some of whom believe that these and other large shipments of hashish were bound for Canada, where the drug traditionally has enjoyed greater popularity.

But in an increasingly vocal dissent, others have warned that the new trans-Pacific traffic can be explained only as an effort by drug merchants in Pakistan and perhaps Afghanistan to exploit a void opened by the U.S. crackdown on domestic marijuana growers.

These officials point to the seizure earlier this month of nearly a ton of hashish in a New York warehouse and the arrest of an Indian citizen there as an indication that previously unknown smuggling rings have succeeded in bringing the drug into the mainland.

"That one really made me sit up and take notice," says one high-ranking federal expert who had been skeptical about the surge.

"No one can figure it out," a senior administration official says. "But it sure has got us worried."

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