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    National Drug Intelligence Center
United States-Canada Border Drug Threat Assessment
December 2001

             Back To Canada’s Main Section Start Page





Drug Threats – Marijuana

Marijuana is the most widely abused and commonly available illicit drug in the United States. Most of the marijuana available in the United States is produced domestically or is imported from Mexico and Colombia. However, Canada increasingly is becoming a source country for high-grade marijuana to the United States.


Marijuana is also the most popular illicit drug in Canada. Most of the marijuana consumed in Canada is produced in that country; however, marijuana smuggled into Canada from countries such as Mexico and Jamaica, some of which transits the United States, also is available.

Figure 2. Canada-produced marijuana exported to the United States typically is high in quality.

fig2.jpg (68553 bytes)
Click thumb nail to enlarge

A number of international publications have reported that approximately 50-60 percent of the marijuana produced in Canada is smuggled into the United States annually. However, in-depth analysis and consultations between officials of both countries have concluded that these estimates cannot be substantiated through current reporting.


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Production and Transshipment

Cannabis is cultivated throughout the United States at outdoor and indoor locations. According to preliminary 2000 Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reporting, outdoor growing operations are large-scale problems in many states, particularly in California, Hawaii, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Indoor growing operations also are becoming a large-scale problem, such as in Alaska, California, Florida, and Washington. However, because of the discreet nature of cannabis cultivation, there are no generally accepted estimates for domestic marijuana production.

Figure 3. An indoor growing operation.

Click Thumb Nail To enlarge


While domestically produced marijuana accounts for a significant share of U.S. marijuana markets, there are four notable foreign sources of marijuana to the United States: Mexico, Colombia, Canada, and Jamaica. Drug trafficking organizations in Mexico and Colombia produce an estimated 10,000 metric tons of marijuana yearly; approximately 7,500 metric tons of that marijuana is intended for U.S. markets. Although criminal groups based in Canada supply far less marijuana to the United States than their Mexican or Colombian counterparts, most of the marijuana supplied from Canada is high-grade marijuana, for which there is a growing demand in the United States. Seizure data and anecdotal evidence suggest that multi-metric ton quantities of Canada-produced marijuana reach U.S. markets yearly. Nevertheless, marijuana transported from Canada clearly amounts to only a small percentage of all marijuana smuggled into the United States. As with Canada-based criminal groups, Jamaican groups also supply multi-metric ton quantities of marijuana to the United States.

The U.S. Customs Service (USCS) reports that the number of inbound passenger-related marijuana seizures at ports of entry (POEs) along the U.S.-Canada border increased from fiscal year (FY) 1999 (1,228 seizures) to FY2000 (1,758 seizures) and that the amount of marijuana seized increased from 0.35 metric ton to 3.25 metric tons, respectively. The number of inbound cargo-related marijuana seizures also increased during the same time frame, but the amounts seized decreased. During FY1999, there were 44 cargo-related marijuana seizures at POEs totaling approximately 0.48 metric ton, while in FY2000, 62 cargo-related marijuana seizures at POEs totaled approximately 0.24 metric ton. These seizures are relatively inconsequential when compared with the 1,200 metric tons of marijuana seized in the United States by federal authorities in 2000.

Between 1996 and 2000, the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency (CCRA) reports that more than 3.7 metric tons of marijuana transshipped through the United States were seized at Canadian POEs. Of that amount, 3.3 metric tons were discovered in vehicles at land POEs.


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The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) estimates that annual Canadian marijuana production is at least 800 metric tons, a considerable portion of which is consumed in Canada. Because of the profitability and relatively low risk involved, cannabis cultivation has become a thriving industry in Canada. The primary growing area for cannabis in Canada is British Columbia, although production has spread since the mid-1990s to the eastern provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Cannabis cultivation also has increased in other Canadian provinces. High-grade marijuana produced in British Columbia commonly is referred to as "BC Bud," while such marijuana produced in Quebec is called "Quebec Gold."

The size of cannabis grow operations in Canada varies widely, from a few plants grown in a closet to several thousand plants hidden in warehouses or underground bunkers. Large indoor grow operations with thousands of plants are not uncommon. In most cases, these operations are under the purview of organized crime and are often sophisticated and highly automated. Canadian cannabis cultivators, both organized groups and independent growers, appear to be opting more frequently for indoor operations, which allow for year-round cultivation and offer better protection from law enforcement and poachers. Rental properties are preferred locations.

Significant differences exist between the United States and Canada with respect to criminal sentencing for drug offenses, particularly marijuana offenses. In Canada, cannabis cultivation is punishable by a maximum prison sentence of 7 years. Charges of illicit cultivation generally are accompanied by charges of possession for the purpose of trafficking, an offense that is punishable by life imprisonment. This being said, sentences exceeding 4 years of imprisonment are uncommon, even for large cases involving thousands of marijuana plants.

U.S. authorities have established the following mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for marijuana offenses. The punishment for growing 100 or more cannabis plants or possessing more than 100 kilograms of marijuana is a minimum prison sentence of 5 years for first-time offenders. The punishment for growing 1,000 or more plants or possessing 1,000 or more kilograms of marijuana is a minimum prison sentence of 10 years for first-time offenders.


Marijuana produced in Canada is recognized for its potency, but there is a general misconception regarding the uniqueness of this marijuana. Growers in both Canada and the United States have access to the same strains of cannabis seeds and the same cultivation technologies. Therefore, growers in both countries are capable of producing the same quality of high-grade marijuana.

Despite extensive cultivation in Canada, marijuana smuggled into the country from foreign sources still accounts for a share of the market and continues to pose a threat. Between 1996 and 2000, approximately 17 metric tons of marijuana were seized at Canadian POEs. Most wholesale quantities of marijuana are seized at airports, and the shipments originate in Mexico, South Africa, and the Caribbean Islands.

Figure 4. Canada-produced marijuana smuggled in duffle bags.

Click Thumb Nail to Enlarge


Marijuana also is smuggled into Canada from foreign sources via the United States. This is particularly the case with Jamaica- and Mexico-produced marijuana. The amount of marijuana seized both in the United States en route to Canada and in Canada after transiting the United States has exceeded 3 metric tons per year over the last several years.

The use of high-grade "BC Bud" as a currency with which traffickers in Canada buy cocaine in the United States is a practice still reported on a regular basis. Often, couriers attempting to return to Canada are arrested along the border with large quantities of cocaine. However, reports of the reputed exchange of Canadian marijuana for U.S. cocaine on a pound-for-pound ratio are false.


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Criminal Groups and Organizations

Within the past 5 years, criminal groups based in Canada have emerged as suppliers of high-grade marijuana to the United States. Organized criminal groups such as outlaw motorcycle gangs (OMGs) transport shipments of Canada-produced marijuana to U.S. markets, and their wide-ranging involvement in the marijuana trade is well-documented in law enforcement and intelligence reporting. OMGs such as the Hells Angels, however, are now faced with fierce competition from Vietnamese criminal groups in western Canada. These Vietnamese groups, as well as other Asian criminal groups, have been implicated in a number of cannabis cultivation operations in western Canada and in marijuana transportation to the United States. Also, many small-time, low-tech growers that began to appear a few years ago have now consolidated. This competition from other criminal groups has put an end to the monopoly traditionally held by the Hells Angels.



The demand for marijuana in the United States is high. According to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA), there were 14.8 million illicit drug users aged 12 and older in the United States in 1999, of which 75 percent (11.1 million) used marijuana. The Monitoring the Future (MTF) Study shows the highest levels of marijuana use are among the nation’s youth. According to 2000 MTF data, rates of lifetime use have remained stable since 1998 at a little over 20 percent for eighth graders, approximately 40 percent for tenth graders, and just under 50 percent for twelfth graders. Likewise, the rates of past year use increase the higher the grade level. In 2000, 15.6 percent of eighth graders used marijuana in the past year, while the rate of past year use among tenth and twelfth graders was 32.2 and 36.5 percent, respectively.

There is a significant level of demand for marijuana in Canada, and as in the United States, particularly among youth. While rates of marijuana use in the total population have remained stable at approximately 23 percent for lifetime use and approximately 7 percent for past year use, student surveys reflect much higher marijuana use rates. Rates of past year use vary from 16 percent to 38 percent but are typically near 30 percent. 


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