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Potent Pot & Lax Canadian Laws Frustrate US Border Customs

By Shannon McCaffrey, Knight Ridder Newspapers 

Source: KR Washington Bureau


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Blaine, Wash. – For decades the drug smuggling war has raged to the south in dusty Mexican border towns or along the sparkling waters of the Caribbean.

But in the cool evergreen forests of the Pacific Northwest, a new front has opened up thanks to a potent breed of pricey Canadian marijuana. B.C. Bud is so sought after in the United States that it has been known to trade on the street dollar for dollar with cocaine, federal law enforcement officials say.

Named for its birthplace in British Columbia, the high-grade pot is wreaking havoc on the once sleepy northern border. Enterprising smugglers are using kayaks, horse trailers, Army trucks and even a cage holding a live bear to sneak it into the U.S. They tuck packages into fishmeal or coffee to avoid drug-sniffing dogs. Private planes dip into U.S. airspace and drop hockey bags filled with the stuff to couriers waiting in the woods on ATVs.

While seizures of marijuana along the southern U.S. border declined in fiscal year 2002, along the northern border they exploded – soaring more than 300 percent from the prior year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials. In exchange, shipments of cocaine, guns and money are flowing north to Canada.

“It’s the new frontier,” said Peter Ostrovsky, an agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement who came to the Northwest after working drug cases in Miami.

“This is the only place in the U.S. I’ve seen where there’s two-way traffic. Drugs coming in and out.”

The surge in seizures is due, at least in part, to heightened security at the border in the wake of the terrorist attacks. More car trunks are being popped and sophisticated new x-ray equipment allows agents to peek inside idling tractor-trailers without ever opening a door.

Margaret Fearon, port director at the border checkpoint in this small outpost 30 miles south of Vancouver, said that when more vehicles are searched more drugs are found.

But law enforcement officials on both sides of the international boundary also believe the number of drugs on the move has risen and is pushing eastward.

The situation is so serious that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration just stationed an agent in Vancouver. And the White House, in its annual report on the global drug problem this year, singled out Canada for the first time.

Things could get worse now that Canada appears poised to decriminalize marijuana for personal use. Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s administration introduced legislation in late May that would essentially make possession of small amounts of pot equivalent to a traffic ticket. But the bill also would boost penalties for growing and trafficking marijuana.

While Britain and Australia have made similar moves to lessen penalties for marijuana possession, it is Canada that shares a 4,000-mile land border with the U.S. and American officials are not pleased.

Canada and the U.S. do about a $1 billion of trade a day and top U.S. officials have warned their Canadian counterparts that easing marijuana laws could lead to heightened inspections along the border, said Jennifer de Vallance a spokeswoman for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) are struggling to control the explosion but admit their hands are tied by a justice system that is notoriously lenient when it comes to marijuana.

Only rarely do marijuana offenders do jail time in Canada and when they do it’s for an average of just a few months, said Sgt. Brian McDonald of the RCMP’s Greater Vancouver Drug Section. Most of the stiffer sentences have been struck down by the appeals courts, he said.

“We are hurt by the Canadian Justice system. It’s a gripe,” said RCMP Superintendent Bill Ard.

Police in Canada have had to make do with shutting down some of the 11,000 marijuana-growing operations only to watch them spring up again somewhere else.

In a sign of how permissive things have become, the counterculture magazine High Times recently dubbed Vancouver as its top destination for getting good pot, noting that having an indoor marijuana growing room is “almost as common as having a den.”

In British Columbia, it’s estimated that B.C. Bud is a $2.8 billion-a-year industry, raking in more than the total for the province’s legitimate agriculture industry combined.

The marijuana plants are carefully nurtured indoors hydroponically – rooted in water and nutrients, not soil – often using high-tech equipment to precisely regulate temperature and light so that growers can harvest up to six lucrative crops a year.

The resulting supercharged pot is worth about $2,000 a pound in the Vancouver area. That price tag doubles as soon as it crosses the border into the U.S. Once it reaches Southern California it can reach $6,000 a pound.

Why such a demand? The high is a lot higher. Woodstock-era marijuana had a THC content, or potency, of 2 percent. The current crop coming in from Mexico runs an average of 6 percent. B.C. Bud’s THC content can rise to 25 percent.

The trade is run largely by Vietnamese gangs and outlaw biker gangs like the Hell’s Angels. Competition between them has become increasingly violent, fueled by the guns that are streaming back into Canada as part of the illicit drug trade, Ard of the RCMP said.

As security clamps down in western Washington State, some smugglers have set their sights further east on the more remote border in the middle of the country and on border crossings in Detroit or Buffalo.

Some traffickers are even attempting to trek through the rough terrain of the Cascade Mountains of the Pacific Northwest.

And Puget Sound, honeycombed with islands and winding inlets and coves, is another popular route, where smugglers sometimes zip back across the border into Canadian water and wave at their American pursuers.

“It’s a smugglers paradise,” said Mike Butz, officer in charge of the Coast Guard cutter Wahoo, which patrols the area.

Other traffickers have grown even more creative. A large stash of B.C. Bud was found recently in the cage of a large black bear, allegedly being transported to Hollywood for a movie.

The Canadian haul still pales in comparison to the tonnage that is flowing over from Mexico and other points south. In fiscal year 2002, 19,405 pounds, were seized on the northern border compared to 1.2 million pounds on the southwest border, Customs figures show.

But Customs agents along the northern border said that doesn’t take into account the value of the crop. Canadian pot can be six to 20 times more expensive than the Mexican variety, according to the DEA.

U.S. and Canadian officials are working cooperatively to go after the ringleaders.

The problem: the penalties are tougher in the U.S. and most of the kingpins are in Canada. John McKay, U.S. Attorney in Seattle, said they are working on better extradition procedures and better timing of arrests.

“There’s a clear understanding that in some of these cases it’s a lot better to let them get arrested in the United States,” McKay said.

But McKay’s focus on the getting at the top of the smuggler’s organization means that at least some traffickers are getting a slap on the wrist not unlike what they would receive in Canada.

On May 13, U.S. Customs inspectors here scored a big bust when their new vehicle x-ray machine detected something amiss in a semi truck crossing the border. Tucked into the load of wood shavings bound for Long Beach, Calif., was a little more than 1,300 pounds of B.C. Bud worth about $4 million.

But McKay’s office declined to prosecute the driver, 48-year-old Blake McDonald, and the case was turned over to Whatcom County, Wash. McDonald could have faced a mandatory minimum of five years in federal prison but will instead do a few months in county jail if he’s convicted, prosecutors said.

“We’re hoping this leads us higher up the food chain. That’s how you attack this: from the top,” said Jeff Sullivan, chief of McKay’s criminal division.

Complete Title: Potent Marijuana, Lax Laws in Canada Frustrate U.S. Drug, Border Officers

Source: Knight Ridder Washington Bureau (US Wire)
Author: Shannon McCaffrey, Knight Ridder Newspapers
Published: Sunday, June 01, 2003
Copyright: 2003 Knight Ridder News Service
Website: http://www.realcities.com/mld/krwashington/

Related Articles:

Our Drug War is Rich in Silliness

Canada’s Pot Plan Has Area Officials Burning

Pot Bill Could Bog Down Border


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