When it comes to drugs, as with anything else, Lewis County doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
Lewis County is part of the Northwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, along with Washington’s entire Interstate 5 corridor and several counties stretching east to Yakima and Spokane.
While some HIDTAs — like one in the Appalachian mountains — focus on drug production, and others — such as another in New York — focus on drug consumption, the Northwest HIDTA is unique in that it includes drug consumption, production and trafficking, said Steven Freng, Northwest HIDTA prevention and treatment manager.
“We’re on an international border. We’re on the Pacific rim. We’re on I-5,” Freng said. “We’ve got the whole full meal deal here.”
The Northwest HIDTA is one of 28 High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas in the United States. The program was created by Congress in 1988 to provide assistance to law enforcement agencies in areas designated to be “critical drug-trafficking regions” according to whitehouse.gov, and to fight drug-trafficking organizations. The organization also compiles data on drug trends in the area.
“We have been a HIDTA county for a long time,” said Sheriff Rob Snaza. “We use that data to help us see where we’re at, what we’re doing as far as the area of drug detection.”
The county used to receive federal funding through the HIDTA, but hasn’t for some time, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
“The problem is there’s not enough money to deal with all the problems,” said Undersheriff Wes Rethwill.
Drugs flow through the Northwest HIDTA in a few predictable directions, Freng said. Methamphetamine, heroin and other drugs come north on I-5 from Mexico, while other drugs are exchanged at a border farther north.
“MDMA’s coming down from Canada (and) Canada still has a sweet tooth for cocaine,” Freng said.
Some of the drugs trafficked through the HIDTA probably pass through Lewis County on U.S. Highway 12, past small communities such as Morton and Randle on its way over White Pass and into Yakima, one of the largest drug distribution centers in the country, Freng added at recent meeting in Morton, eliciting genuine concern from residents.
“I want to think that people are aware, but sometimes we care more about what’s going on with our own community,” Snaza said. “There is a need for us to continually go out and let our communities know.”
More drugs go through Yakima than larger cities such as Seattle or Tacoma, Freng noted.
The drug trafficking routes extend from east of Washington’s Cascades to the Rocky Mountain HIDTA, including Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, he said.
Much of the trafficking can be traced to drug cartels, most predominantly in Washington to the Sinaloa Cartel from Mexico.
The illicit drug trade is the world’s fifth-largest industry, generating an estimated $500 billion a year, Freng said.
“It’s demand,” he said.
But demand changes.
In 1998, cocaine was the most prominent drug flowing through the NW HIDTA, Freng said.
Now, he said, it’s methamphetamine.
“Cocaine is basically disappearing,” he said. “Meth isn’t going anywhere. Heroin is up 50 percent.”
Freng added that heroin use is “spiking like crazy” in the HIDTA.
Types of drugs come and go over the years, and the way they are produced also changes. Meth has come in two phases, Freng said.
“The first was the lab phase where everyone was cooking themselves and blowing themselves up,” he said.
However, after lawmakers and manufacturers made it harder to find the ingredients necessary to make meth, such as pseudoephedrine, a common ingredient in cold medicine Sudafed, home production dropped, leaving room for the second phase in production.
“The Mexicans have more than made up for it,” Freng said.
Mexico also accounts for a large amount of black-tar heroin, and black-market prescription opiates are shipped in from India and China, he said.
In some cities in the Northwest HIDTA, heroin is now considered to be a bigger threat than any other drug.
“That’s the first time that’s happened in my career,” he said.