A new multi-agency federal task force has been formed to investigate drug organizations in Eastern Washington and North Idaho.
Formation of the task force was one of the first goals of Selby L. Smith, the newly named regional drug boss for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
"People who are dealing drugs are also frequently involved in money laundering and firearms," said Smith, resident agent in charge of the DEA's Spokane office.
The new task force includes DEA agents working alongside agents from the FBI, IRS, U.S. Customs and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
The task force is housed in a downtown office building.
"The purpose of this new task force is to come at drug organizations at every level of illegal criminal conduct -- drugs, guns, money laundering, tax evasion," Smith said.
The task force's region includes 300 miles of the U.S.-Canada border, where smuggling of a potent form of marijuana known as "B.C. Bud" continues to flourish.
The task force also is responsible for federal drug investigations throughout the Idaho Panhandle, from Lewiston to the Canadian border.
Methamphetamine production and distribution is the No. 1 drug problem in the region, the DEA chief said. Large meth distribution organizations will be a priority for the task force, Smith said.
But the meth problem isn't unique to the Inland Northwest, he said. It is growing everywhere in the United States.
"It's cheap -- about half as expensive as cocaine, and provides the same high," Smith said.
"And you don't have to go to Colombia, you don't have to go to Mexico to get the drug. You can make it right here, locally.
"That's the meth phenomenon," he said.
A pound of meth sells for $4,500 to $7,000, while an equal amount of cocaine goes for $10,000 or more.
Most large quantities of meth being sold in the Spokane area are coming from dealers with ties to the illegal alien community in Yakima, Smith said.
The DEA also has offices in Yakima and the Tri-Cities.
The DEA and the FBI both have jurisdiction to conduct federal drug investigations. Additionally, the Spokane Regional Drug Task Force, composed of state patrol and local police agencies, investigates drug trafficking.
Smith said the new task force, already operational, is working closely with the regional drug task force in Spokane and similar task forces in Moses Lake, Okanogan and Clarkston.
Cases developed by the federal task force will be pursued with federal prosecutions in U.S. District Court. The regional drug task force cases are regularly prosecuted in state court.
Smith, 38, was a DEA agent in Spokane before being promoted recently to the supervisory post. He was born and raised in Tacoma and graduated from St. Martin's College with a criminal justice degree.
He served as a security police officer in the U.S. Air Force and was involved in the 1983 invasion of Grenada. He worked as a security officer for Northrup in its B-2 bomber development program before being hired by the DEA in 1988.
Smith was assigned to the DEA's office in Los Angeles, where he was involved in an $800 million cocaine-money laundering investigation in 1988.
He was transferred to the DEA's office in Islamabad, Pakistan, in 1992, and remained there until 1994.
While in Pakistan as a DEA drug liaison officer, Smith investigated a drug ring that smuggled $8 million worth of heroin to New Jersey.
After arriving in Spokane, Smith worked undercover and was involved in several high-profile cases. One involved the smuggling of 120 pounds of heroin from Pakistan to Spokane.
In 1999, Smith's investigative work cracked a $15 million Canadian marijuana smuggling ring that used an isolated airstrip in Eastern Washington.
And in May, he and other DEA agents were involved in arresting a man allegedly involved in smuggling 187 pounds of marijuana into the United States.
The suspect, Travis Ranger, who is awaiting trial, was accused of using a helicopter to get the pot over the border. • Bill Morlin can be reached at (509) 459-5444 or by e-mail at email@example.com.