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 United States. They tuck packages into fish
meal 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 all-terrain vehicles.

Although 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. Bureau of 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, British Columbia, 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 east.

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.

Although 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 United States, and American officials are not pleased.

Canada and the United States do about $1 billion of trade a day. 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 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
mounted police'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
Superintendent Bill Ard of the Canadian police.

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."

While aware of B.C. Bud, Philadelphia Police narcotics officers said they
have not seen it on city streets.

"I don't have any evidence of it being here, but we've heard of it. We've
heard how potent it is and its price," said Chief Inspector William
Blackburn, head of the police Narcotics Bureau.

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. 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.
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
tetrahydrocannabinol (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.
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 mounted police said.

The Canadian haul still pales in comparison with the tonnage that is
flowing 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 did not 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 United States and most of the
kingpins are in Canada. John McKay, U.S. attorney in Seattle, said
officials 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.


Pubdate: Mon, 23 Jun 2003
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA)
Copyright: 2003 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc
Contact: Inquirer.Letters@phillynews.com
Website: http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/