The driver and passenger who pulled up to the border crossing at Lynden, Wash., could have been just another pair of
Canadian bargain-hunters: a woman in her early 20s and her grey-haired, fiftysomething mother, heading south for a spot of shopping at an American mall. Crossings are normally quick at Lynden, the least-busy of four border stations south of Vancouver. But on this February day,
U.S. customs officers were conducting a “block blitz.” Agents directed up to 20 vehicles at a time to a parking area, ordered drivers to open their trunks, then turned sniffer dogs
loose on the cars. Coming upon the women’s 1991 Dodge Shadow the dogs found what they were sniffing for: 10.8 kg of high-grade B.C. marijuana, concealed in a compartment behind the backseat.
The seizure was one small victory for American lawmen over a new wave of dope-runners bent on smuggling the potent cannabis known as “B.C. bud” into the United States. British Columbians may complain that a once-welcoming border is becoming more difficult to cross.
But American officials counter that tie-ups are inevitable as long as the southward flow of powerful pot continues. They blame the surge on two things: relatively lighter Canadian penalties for growing marijuana, and the high quality of Canadian weed. “Canada’s got phenomenal bud,” says Michael Flego, the U.S. Drug
Enforcement Agency officer in charge of interdictions along the western portion of Washington state’s border with Canada. “The potency far exceeds most of what’s grown in California. This stuff will knock your socks off.” American smokers are equally admiring: in markets like San Francisco, B.C. marijuana can fetch $6,000 (U.S.) a pound.
But the facts do not quite match the hype. Some evidence suggests B.C. pot is not as strong as advertised. RCMP sources told Maclean's that a laboratory analysis of cannabis seized in the lower B.C. mainland in 1995 measured an average potency of just eight per cent THC content—the active chemical in marijuana—nowhere near the 25 per cent that U.S. law enforcement officers claim. Nor are the differences between Canadian and U.S. penalties for cultivation and trafficking as wide as American officials suggest. Agent Flego concedes U.S. federal prosecutors will not proceed with cases involving much less than 225 kg of processed pot, leaving smaller-scale prosecutions to state attorneys where sentences are less harsh. Meanwhile, Canadian police have stepped up raids on so-called grow-houses, where the best quality pot is produced using hydroponic techniques.
But odds still favor the smugglers. Despite surveillance by U.S. border patrols and a network of remote sensors, much of the frontier south of Vancouver is barely marked let alone guarded. Along Zero Avenue in suburban Surrey, only a ditch and the occasional white-painted concrete pylon separate the two countries. Flego admits that, along much of the border, “you can walk 20, 30, 40 lb. across, no problem.” The big volume of smuggled marijuana became clear earlier this year during Operation Brass Ring, a five-month drug smuggling crackdown along both the northern and southern U.S. borders. Inspectors at the four Vancouver-area crossing points made a handful of seizures of cocaine, heroin and hashish, but nailed an astounding 503 kg of marijuana, worth $6.7 million. Flego laughs at the trade imbalance. “We’ve given you everything we could think of: heroin, LSD, methamphetamines, cocaine,” he says. “But you guys have us beat with the pot.”
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