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ANCHORAGE - Hidden in frozen hamburger, strapped to smugglers' bellies or shipped in unmarked boxes to family and friends, more and more marijuana is being found on its way to the Bush.
Alaska State Troopers doubt that dope smoking is on the rise in rural Alaska. "We're just finding more," said investigator Thad Hamilton.
But others, including some long-time village officers, believe pot is gaining popularity. While some officials say marijuana doesn't leave a trail of tears and destruction like alcohol, they suspect its use is rising. That sends a rare commodity in rural Alaska - cash - up in smoke.
The Alaska Supreme Court ruled in September that adults have a constitutional right to possess up to four ounces of marijuana in their homes for personal use. But it's still illegal to sell it, and pot is flowing into the Bush.
In 2002, troopers seized 27 pounds. The following year, they nabbed 30. So far in 2004 the total is 43 pounds, and that doesn't include four pounds confiscated recently in Emmonak, the half-pound destined for Nuiqsut or several ounces packaged for sale in Hooper Bay.
Drug use in rural Alaska shouldn't be a surprise, said Hamilton, who is based in Bethel. "We have anything you can find in the cities," he said, from marijuana to crack cocaine and methamphetamine.
Alcohol, in spite of widespread prohibitions enacted over the last 20 years, remains the most lucrative illicit substance in the Bush, troopers say. A $10 bottle in Anchorage can sell for $150 or more in a small, dry village.
The markup on marijuana isn't quite that high, said troopers spokesman Greg Wilkinson. "But marijuana is lighter and cheaper to ship," he said, making it relatively easy to carry a commercial amount onto an airplane or hide in a box of groceries.
Anchorage police say a pound of Alaska-grown marijuana can be purchased for $2,500. Split into 454 gram-sized bags, that pound would sell for $22,700, earning a fat profit. And some dealers are stretching their profits further.
Police in Hooper Bay, a Yup'ik Eskimo village of 1,200 on the Bering Sea coast, confiscated gram-sized, $50 bags containing less than half a gram each.
"They're making a large amount of money in all these villages," said police chief James Hoelscher.
Drug dealers and bootleggers, like law-abiding Alaska merchants, do a booming business when Permanent Fund checks come out in October. This year, the troopers notched up interdiction efforts during that period, and in Bethel, Nome and Kotzebue seized twice the usual amount of alcohol. They also found $40,000 worth of pot, half again more than usual.
Troopers have discovered packaged marijuana taped to smugglers' bodies, buried in mayonnaise and tucked inside corn chip bags, which were then carefully glued back together. More than once, baggies of pot have been wrapped in raw hamburger, then frozen and shipped.