The Utah attorney general's office has hired three special prosecutors to assist both federal and local efforts in combatting drug trafficking in Utah, Attorney General David L. Wilkinson announced Monday.

Wilkinson, speaking at a news conference, announced the formation of a Statewide Prosecution and Illegal Narcotics Enforcement unit referred to as "SPINE" in a press release through the use of a $427,612 grant that was awarded in November 1987.Wilkinson said, "This marks the first time the Utah attorney general's office has gotten involved in the drug war."

The 18-month grant, one of only four awarded nationally and the only one yet awarded to a Western state, is designed to foster cooperation and communication between state and federal law enforcement in the war against drugs.

Wendy Hufnagel, an attorney with 12 years experience as a prosecutor in Utah and elsewhere, will head the unit. Other members are assistant director Rich McKelvie, an eight-year veteran of the Salt Lake County attorney's office, and staff attorney Bill Albright, a lawyer with five years experience in criminal law.

Much of the grant will go to salaries for the attorneys and for the rent of office space downtown because of a space shortage at the Capitol. But Hufnafel said money will also go to research and trial preparation.

She said the unit will not attempt to usurp the traditional role of county attorneys in prosecuting drug cases. Rather, she said, the group will focus its attention on helping where needed and on prosecuting multicounty drug cases.

"There are an awful lot of narcotics being trafficked through our state," she said.

Wilkinson said the unit was conceived about a year ago when he met with U.S.

Attorney Brent D. Ward, who asked that state resources be brought to bear in helping to fight drug trafficking.

"We unfortunately had to say we have no resources," Wilkinson said.

He said Ward suggested the state apply for the drug grant, which is based on four criteria: the existence of a statewide prosecution authority; the availability of a statewide system for multijurisdictional cases; the investigative capability to support the prosecution effort; and a history of cooperative efforts and strategy.