Run for the border
From Nova Scotia to Vancouver Island, from the Bay of Fundy to the Georgia Strait, Canada's border with the United States comprises thousands of miles of diverse, rugged and often beautiful terrain.
But the borderland is more than a geographer's dream. It is a line between two radically different cultures, united by proximity and history, divided by politics and national character.
Americans may wince to hear it, but Canada is generally a less repressive, more enlightened country than the US ? a slice of socialist Europe located north of a country which has a higher incarceration rate than any other so-called democracy.
America seems to like being at war, with others and with itself. During the Vietnam War, America inadvertently exported its best and brightest to Canada; young men who feared that they would be forced to kill and die in Southeast Asia became "conscientious objectors" seeking refuge on Canadian soil. Many of these refugees brought kilos of bricked, brown Mexican marijuana with them to Canada, which at the time had almost no domestic marijuana cultivation.
Now, America's war on drugs, combined with an American dollar worth far more than its sinking Canadian counterpart, has led to a boom for Canada's homegrown marijuana industry. Canada is exporting megatons of megabud, described as "the best marijuana in the world," to its pot-hungry southern neighbour.
This clandestine export trade, the subject of legend, lore and myth, defies precise accounting. Officials on both sides of the border guesstimate that as much as a billion US dollars worth of Canadian marijuana was sold to Americans last year. What is known for sure is that shipments heading south are increasing, prices are high and stable, and business is booming.
"We're deluged with high-grade Canadian cannabis," admits Gene Davis, deputy chief of the US Border Patrol office in Blaine, Washington. "We don't pretend to be getting even a healthy fraction of what's coming across."
Whales, bales & fishy tales
Although marijuana is grown and exported in every Canadian province, British Columbia is reputed to be the epicentre of the country's marijuana production and exporting industries.
No matter where I went during a recent visit to BC, I saw evidence of a thriving cannabis export industry. For example, while I stood near a group of young kayakers who were about to embark on a journey in the Strait of Juan De Fuca, I overheard them regaling each other with smuggling stories.
"John almost got pulled out by a rip-tide past Cape Flattery," a boy said. "He had 24 pounds. He radioed, and somebody told him to sit it out and wait for the tide. What was he going to do? Call the Coast Guard for help? He ended up on the Olympic peninsula in the rain and had to stash the boat and the bud and walk out."
After I convinced the sceptical youngsters that I was a Cannabis Culture writer instead of a narc, they happily trotted out story after story about the joys and triumphs of smuggling.
"They're never going to stop us," said a 17-year-old blonde girl, whose tanned good looks were backed up by impressive muscle tone. "How can they stop the whales?"
How indeed? The tools of the marine marijuana export trade include fake whales, islands, tunnels, logs, scuba gear, fish, carcasses, boats, submarines, underwater cables. When a pound of pot that costs $200 to grow and sells for $2500 Canadian dollars north of the border doubles in value as soon as it arrives on American territory, you can bet that ingenuity will rise up like a breaching whale.
For example: take a hollowed out log, just another murdered tree, waterproofed and outfitted with a small remote controlled motor. Fill with well-packaged bricks of crystalline, oozing Romulan. Mix in a calm day at sea with a couple of smugglers hanging around the tide pools, estuaries or islands ? one person just north of the border, one just south. They've created a log with a brain that'll garner them a big payday.
Further up the coast, loggers rape a hillside, sending oxygen-producers into inlets and coves, there to be roped in and tugged by boat to the infernal pulp mills. Cunning muggles smugglers slip in at night to insert pot logs amidst the others. Fifty miles later, the marked logs are stealthily removed and unpacked. Payday again!
Fishing vessels laden with pungent sea life provide ideal cover for smugglers. US Coast Guard personnel are unlikely to stop a small vessel and examine the day's catch, and even if they did, they'd likely never find the well-packaged Skunk hidden amidst stinky piles of salmon and halibut.
Innocent-looking clumps of kelp and other flotsam meander with the currents in Boundary Bay. Seals and orcas pause in their dance of predator and prey to bemusedly eye the wetsuited smuggler tethered to the ocean detritus, which is also tethered with 20-pound sealed bags of Masterkush kept nice and cold by the kind Pacific. These pseudoislands and their pilots enjoy mile upon mile of coastline conveniently situated near major shipping lanes and American cities.
"Can you swim? Can you pilot a boat? Can you surf? Can you ski? Can you float? Can you read a map? Can you kayak? Can you wear a wetsuit? Can you read a tide chart? If the answer to enough of those questions is yes," a smiling kayaker tells me, "you can earn $1,000 in an afternoon. Everybody's doing it."
Brain Chemist Bill (we will refer to him as BC Bill) is a bear of a man. His rugby-ready body, wild shock of hair, open face, and resonant voice shout virility, courage and adventure!
Until he retired from smuggling three years ago, BC Bill was a border baron who specialized in backcountry crossings that few sane humans would even contemplate. These days, BC Bill and his beautiful wife contentedly watch the sun set over the Pacific, from a mansion purchased with smuggling proceeds.
Bill describes himself as a "brain chemist" because he spends his time "creating new variations of cannabinoids through selective breeding." Still, he admits wistfully, "there are times when I feel like pulling on the hiking gear and carrying a load south, just for old time's sake."
BC Bill is living proof that marijuana doesn't have to harm the user's memory. He can recall, in gorgeous detail, dozens of smuggling operations across the border between BC and the US.
"I've never had to resort to water routes," he says as he dips a phatty into hash oil, "but I understand that the youngsters have diversified since the days when we could just about stroll across anywhere on dry land. They've become super-creative as the prices and the demand have gone up. Now they've got dirigibles, subs, balloons, planes, cattle, squid, tunnels, hay bales, rockets, toy trains ? basically anything that'll move and can carry ten pounds or more. I think the basic message to BP (Border Patrol) is 'Forget it. You can't stop our buds, so just let free enterprise take over and let the product flow. You're wasting your time and our tax money trying to catch us.'"
Bill wasn't wasting his time during his smuggling career. Time, and timing, was everything. But sometimes, his timing was off, way off.
"Picture yourself waiting at the top of a hill on the Canadian side, looking across at a little road on the other side. It's nighttime, and you can see for miles. My buddy is supposed to come up the road and blink his lights, then I run down the hill, jump in, and we're off to Seattle. I have the backpack with 20 pounds. Kneeling there, I can see a BP truck cruising along. So I know my buddy will have to loop around and come back. It might be an hour. A hassle, but not a major problem.
"So I'm waiting, waiting, and suddenly I hear something behind me, and then I feel a wet thing nuzzling my neck. A bear, a goddam bear nuzzling me and my pack! I read somewhere that they like to get high. I'm thinking 'He wants in the pack.'
"I busted out yelling and ran zig-zagging to another spot about a half kilometre away. The bear didn't find me again, but I started thinking about retiring, right about then," chuckled BC Bill.
BC Bill retired with his stash, cash and ass intact, but an American smuggler named Yankee Jim told me he continues to endure the risks and reap the rewards of smuggling.
Jim contends that many smugglers are Americans.
"The Canadians like to sit up here and grow it," he explains. "They don't like to hump it. The growers sell it to a middleman for $2500cdn per pound for the best bud. The middleman hooks up the smugglers and purchasers on the other side."
This arrangement benefits growers, Jim says, because it pays them in Canadian currency and insulates them from the considerable dangers of smuggling and retailing. Jim wears three hats, acting as middleman, smuggler, and money launderer, and like most marijuana industrialists, he has a few horror stories to tell.
"It's one of those where it didn't seem funny at the time, but it does now," he recalls. "I was very broke when I first came up here and kind of foolishly agreed to do a hastily arranged solo operation for $4000. It looked easy. All I had to do was cross a ditch, hide under a bush, and wait for my connection to drive by so I could jump in. I had a huge fucking pack of Big Bud.
"So I wade through the ditch knee deep in sludge, and it's raining and cold. There I am under this bush when I hear a dog barking, barking, barking. My heart starts thumping harder. Why me? Why a fucking dog? It keeps barking and it's getting closer. It could be a farm dog or it could be The Man. Where's my connection?
"Finally I see the car and I get up to run, and this German Shepherd scoots up and starts lunging at me. I'm running down the middle of the road with this fucker right on my heels, trying to catch the car. My connection thinks I've got a patrol dog on me so he's wondering if he should stop. I'm just running down the road yelling 'FUCK! STOP!'
"I started carrying mace after that. And now I hate dogs. Any animal stupid enough to help the drug cops, I say shoot 'em."
Hi-tech cat & mouse
While Bill and Jim are hard men with legs the size of tree trunks and attitudes to match, other smugglers tend to be juveniles hired precisely because their age insulates them from the harsh penalties that adult smugglers face if caught. Many of these kids are disenfranchised urchins who fled the squalor of Toronto and other large Canadian cities for new lives in the rugged mountain ranges which rise up between Vancouver and Calgary.
Combining the recklessness, resilience and amorality of feckless children with technological and business savvy, many young smugglers grow and transport their own crops, using the best cultivation, security and transportation techniques.
"We have spotters sitting on the tops of mountains wearing ITT Gen Three night vision goggles and using military surveillance scopes," said 16-year-old Raymundo. "We can see for miles and miles. When there's no patrol within thirty minutes of our location, we communicate a "Go" order via secured networks, and a whole stream of runners scoot downhill and across. It's all over in just a few minutes."
Solo and two-person operations are often conducted by strong youngsters who equip themselves with global positioning system devices, thermal gear, and even firearms.
"The enemy is looking for us in roaded areas, and places where there are established trails," said a youngster who views smuggling as an elaborate and deadly serious game of cat and mouse. "My dad was a forester, and he taught me how to go through complete wilderness, alpine, old growth. I taught some of the others. We're small, we're equipped, we're mobile. Really, there's nothing that can stop us. Knock on wood. Nothing has so far."
Border Patrol has no control
Stopping smugglers is left to a multitude of government agencies and agents on both sides of the border. The political intrigue and sovereignty issues symbolized by anti-smuggling efforts became clear to me when I tried to interview top government bureaucrats in Ottawa and Washington, DC. Obfuscation, unreturned phone calls and non-responsive answers were the rule rather than the exception.
Because they are losing the war, officials are unwilling to provide stats or policy statements regarding smuggling. They're embarrassed. Federal officials in both nation's capitols sheepishly told me to contact local offices of the US Border Patrol and Customs Service, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in Vancouver.
When I spoke to representatives of local agencies, I found them to be candid, affable and good-humoured about the obvious challenge of interdicting the total Canadian marijuana outflow. They seem like nice people, not the "piggies" and "fascists" which some marijuana advocates view them as.
"We're doing as much as we can," said Gene Davis of the US Border Patrol, "but marijuana is just one of many things we're trying to catch. We have a serious alien smuggling problem because Canada has a relatively open policy toward Third World immigrants, and that's a stepping stone for them entering the United States. The Southern border has gotten all the attention for so many years, but when Congress found out that even terrorists were coming across the northern border, and how few agents we had up here, they were really shocked."
Davis says that seizures of Canadian marijuana are up six hundred percent over last year's figures.
"Seizures are up because demand has increased, and so has supply. Why? Because the Canadian marijuana is so potent, between 25 to 30 percent THC, and everybody wants it. The BC bud is second to none in the drug world. The Blaine office has to patrol a very busy corridor which covers from the top of the Cascades west and includes the Olympic peninsula. There's lots of rugged hills and mountains. There are roads parallelling each other on both sides. We've asked for more manpower, and it looks like we might get it, but we've got so much territory, they could give us another 100 officers and it wouldn't be enough," he said.
US Border Patrol Intelligence Specialist Dave Keller says 42 agents are responsible for interdicting the 40 mile smuggling corridor near Vancouver.
"If we're getting more than two percent of what's coming across, we're lucky," he says. "The bulk of it is in commercial vehicles, but an average load is 35 pounds, enough to fit in one duffel bag. We haven't had the resources to examine the sea routes, and we don't think the air routes are significant. Many of the people we catch are ethnic minorities, like Central and South Americans who are also involved in gun and hard narcotics smuggling.
"We're seeing a rapid infiltration of organized crime, apparently a more rapid infiltration than what happened on the Mexican border. They're bringing marijuana south and sending guns, meth, cocaine and heroin north. Definite Hells Angels involvement, Asian Triads, the works. Sometimes we see personal use smugglers: people who pick up one to three pounds of BC bud and bring it across for their own smoke."
Sovereignty & the media
Although some Canadians say that the US drug war compromises Canadian sovereignty by coercing BC authorities into accepting US helicopters, intelligence and hardline anti-drug tactics, US officials contend that law enforcement agencies from both countries have a good working relationship.
"RCMP has a border drug interdiction unit which works closely with us. They want to help us stop marijuana as much as we want to help them stop firearms, cocaine, and heroin from entering their country," Hall says. "I don't think there's any resentment on their part. They view border security as a common responsibility for the good of all."
Debbie Engels, a supervisory US Customs inspector who serves as designated spokesperson for Customs offices at Blaine, Peace Arch, Lynden and Sumas crossings (which comprise the major legal crosspoints available within 30 miles of Vancouver), says that her agency works in concert with Canadian Customs trying to stop banned items from flowing across highway corridors which connect BC to Washington, Idaho and Montana.
In her view, anybody who tries to smuggle large quantities of marijuana through a border checkpoint is a fool.
"International borders are places where ordinary constitutional protections are absent," she notes. "You or your possessions can be searched without probable cause. Just by entering a border zone you've consented to a warrantless search."
"We don't use drug courier profiles anymore," Engels explains. "We know that anybody can be a smuggler. Grandmas, grandpas, families. It's not just people with long hair and beads. We have a mathematical formula which determines a random search ratio, and sometimes we just choose to search a block of thirty cars all at once. We'll have teams in the inspection areas with dogs and just go through every vehicle. Nobody can assume that they are going to be just waved through."
Engels says that high-profile news coverage of BC's marijuana industry caused her agency to heighten anti-pot interdiction efforts.
"We find a lot. Now if it's just a joint, I don't think we're necessarily going to waste our time on one gram. We're looking for five, ten, fifteen, twenty-five, a hundred pounds, which we find. And those people are in big trouble. It's a federal crime," she says.
Although Engels chuckles at apocryphal stories which allege that American authorities vacuum carpets or scrape resin off windows and ashtrays to make busts, she defends her agency's right to dismantle vehicles and sift through personal items looking for drugs.
"Sure, we get some complaints about delays and inspections, but the majority of comments are favourable," Engels asserts. "Most Americans say 'We don't want narcotics in our country and you have to do whatever you can to stop them. Do your job. We support you.'" Of course, those who feel she is a power hungry minion of a fascist government are unlikely to tell her so while crossing her checkpoint.
Vancouver-based RCMP spokesperson Corporal Bob Hall says pot-smokers have themselves to blame for heightened American interdiction efforts.
"It's true that Canada has not declared a war on drugs. We don't believe in having a war against our own people. But what happened is that some grower from BC went over to this big marijuana competition in Holland [the Cannabis Cup], and entered the BC product, and it placed a very respectable third overall." [The events Bob is referring to are chronicled in CC#4 ?ed.]
"So it put BC marijuana on the map, and everybody in the States started wanting to buy this product. The US realized they were spending all their time watching Mexico and not watching their backs. So they designated this a 'High Intensity Drug Area,' and now there are more cars stopped, more delays, month-long joint efforts that seize large amounts of dope, guns and money, and they're looking to get more personnel," Hall says. "They're not going to give up."
Low seizures, new strategies
An American law enforcement official told me in September that year-to-date seizures for the Blaine corridor were as follows: 685 pounds of pot, 28 pounds of methamphetamines, 15 clones, 28 pounds of cocaine, 467 grams of hashish, and $198,558 in cash.
These figures are shockingly low. That's why police on both sides of the border are "working harder and working smarter," according to Corporal PJ Thompson, a Canadian officer working with the RCMP's newly-formed Border Investigation Unit. Thompson's unit came on line in January, 1998, and is responsible for as much as 200 kilometres of "prime areas of enforcement extending east from the Vancouver area to the Cascade Mountains."
Thompson reacted with derision when I suggested that his unit and other Canadian agencies were lackeys of American drug war agencies. He admitted that there was a "difference of approach in law and attitude toward marijuana" between the US and Canada, but insisted that increased cooperation with American authorities didn't mean that Canada was being treated like Mexico or other Third World countries which have become lap dogs of the US Drug Enforcement Administration.
"It's true that Canadian agencies, from health care to law enforcement, have taken tremendous budgetary hits in the last few years, and that we need funding and manpower," Thompson said. "But it's not true that we have abandoned our country's approach to these problems because the Americans have offered money and assistance.
"Our country has its laws and priorities, and that is what we work for," he continued. "If the Americans came to us with millions of dollars and said 'We'll give this to you but only for marijuana interdiction,' we would probably say 'No'. But if they came and offered money to help us with the whole range of border problems, we might talk about it."
According to Thompson, the "whole range of border problems" includes gun running, organized criminal syndicates, heroin, cocaine and tax revenues lost due to black market tobacco and liquor products imported into Canada. Like other officers interviewed for this article, Thompson contends that violent criminal coalitions are major marijuana exporters, and that marijuana going south is traded for guns, cocaine, and heroin which end up harming Canadian citizens.
Thompson would not confirm or deny the assertion that BC marijuana is an important cash crop earning badly-needed foreign money for an ailing Canadian economy, but he was quite eager to explain that "smuggling hurts everybody and cannot be tolerated."
"Much of the tax money that funds our schools and social programs comes from tax revenues derived from tobacco and liquor," he said. "When those items are smuggled in from the US, we lose the revenues. Smuggling lines the pockets of criminal syndicates, promotes gang activity, and makes the border into a no-man's land of lawlessness which is becoming increasingly dangerous."
Marijuana smugglers, Thompson says, are hard to categorize.
"We've had 15-year-olds, girls, kids, old people," he says, "but increasingly we are seeing high-level, well-equipped criminals who are heavily armed and have technical experience and equipment superior to ours. They have counter-surveillance equipment, ultralights and other machinery, and heavy financial motivation. Our people have been put in danger, and there have been shots fired. It is not a harmless game."
Even though Thompson and American officials are frustrated that so much BC bud is getting through, Thompson says that he and other Canadian officials don't want to see the kind of ugly militarization which characterizes the Mexican border.
"Before we started working with the Americans as a team, we had more than 50 law enforcement units on both sides of the border trying to deal with the problems. Now we are working together as a community to rise above the impasse of sovereignty. We don't want to have thousands of miles of fences and ditches. We want more effective communications, sharing of intelligence data and resources, and community involvement," he said.
For smugglers, the new paradigm means increased surveillance, sharing of information, and cross-border interdiction efforts. But don't look for a massive influx of razor wire, military hardware, spy planes, searchlights, and personnel to flood the hinterlands between Langley and Grand Forks.
"We aren't going to be hiking around in mountain passes," Thompson admits. "We think that most of the smugglers are lazy. They're going to keep coming across these little farming communities and fields where it's easy to cross. We'll concentrate on priority areas. We know that the smugglers are breaking things up into smaller, more numerous shipments so if they get caught they don't lose as much."
High stakes, higher rewards
Thompson says smugglers have a lot to lose if they get caught on either side of the border. New laws increasing penalties for smuggling are in effect and being tested in the courts, and law enforcement officials hope that Canada continues to adopt American-style asset forfeiture laws, which allow cops to seize and keep money, cars, land and other property used or owned by smugglers.
Although he cleverly avoided confirming the extent to which border police are using sniff dogs, motion sensors, remote cameras, aerial surveillance, wiretaps, informants, and other interdiction techniques, Thompson did have the following warning for anyone smuggling BC bud, or anything illegal, across the border:
"We're out there, we're watching you. We may not get you today, we may not get you the first time you cross, or even the third time. But we know who you are, and when you get caught, you'll get prosecuted. If you get caught on the American side, you may spend the rest of your life in jail. Think about it."
BC Bill, Yankee Jim, and other smugglers I spoke to have thought about it. BC Bill got out of the smuggling business, or at least that's what he told me. Jim and other smugglers say they'll take their risks. The stakes are high, they admit, but the rewards are higher.
"There's risk in any business," Jim says. "You log trees, one may fall on you. You sit in an office and get fat, you'll have a heart attack. You invest all your money in some company, it goes belly up, you're broke. Oh sure, you have your 'freedom,' whatever that means. The freedom to pay your taxes, to conform, to commute in stinking traffic.
"I think that the odds I'll get caught are pretty slim. I'm making $200,000 a year for a few days of risk and worry. I've got money offshore, and a lawyer on shore. I have a couple of passports, a couple of houses already paid for. I'm a businessman just like the corn merchant or the guy who kills the forests and the rivers. Who's a fucking criminal? Me, because I send good bud over the border, or the clown who killed the salmon and the old growth?"
Professional smugglers say common sense, good planning and good friends are essential to successful smuggling operations.
BC Bill warns people to avoid easy smuggling routes.
"I laugh when people say 'I looked on a map and saw a great place ? Cultus Lake.' That's where a lot of novices start, and the BP knows it, and they get caught. I say 'Go ahead and try Cultus Lake and you can hold hands with all the other people going across.'
"You need to drive the border," Bill explained. "Study topo maps. Talk to mountain bikers, hunters and hikers. Live on it. Get it in your blood. Watch the people patterns ? when they farm, when they sleep, when they let their dogs out. Use the weather, the tides, the moon phases. When do the trees have leaves on them? When does it snow? And of course, observe the observers. Log their patrol patterns. Memorize their faces and the sound of their trucks. Count them. They're watching us and we should watch them."
Other smugglers say practice makes perfect. They advise people to do dry runs carrying no contraband, and warn that coming back from the United States with American dollars is a big mistake. They also say that working with the smallest number of people you can, keeping your mouth shut, and having quick wits and total mental clarity is necessary for successful border operations.
"You have to work only with people you can totally trust," said one veteran of 17 border crossings. "That means that they aren't smoked out that night, or having some personal problem at home. It means that they are never going to rip you off or snitch you out. It means they can run and hide and wait. It's like a business partnership, but because there's a room in the penitentiary if you fail, it's also a blood relationship. Your team is only as strong as its weakest link, and there's a lot of weak link stoners who I don't want anything to do with."
Being a good neighbour
Most of the smugglers I spoke to scoffed at the notion that the marijuana trade has been infected by organized crime, or that marijuana exporting harms Canada or the United States.
"I should think that our Mounties are stupid to help [the Americans]," one said. "They should be helping us. If they think marijuana is so potent and so bad, they should be happy to offload it onto another country. 'Protect Canada's young ? export BC bud!'"
BC Bill has a more thoughtful attitude toward smuggling. He worries that peaceful marijuana growers and exporters are coming into contact with greedy and violent criminals who see cannabis as just another commodity to be exploited.
"For some people, it's all about money, and that's not the spirit I like to see. I appreciate money, but I love marijuana. The whole world needs marijuana, and BC has been blessed with an opportunity to provide it. The American government is so corrupt, it exports death and stupidity. I feel really sorry for the American people. Look at them: they live in paranoia, fear and obedience.
"It is a repressive country, and so any time we provide some medicine for them, it's an act of mercy, a humanitarian gesture. It's like helping a country suffering from a famine. They're dying down there for lack of good bud and BC can send some to them. That's what being a good neighbour is all about."