War on Terror Aids War on Drugs
Source: Province, The (CN BC)
Author: Jason Proctor, The Province
Published: Sunday, December 22, 2002
Copyright: 2002 The Province
Contact: [email protected]
Tighter security at U.S. border after 9/11 has led to more pot busts.
Blaine, Wash. -- From the U.S. Customs offices at the Pacific Highway truck crossing, Jay Brandt looks almost bored as conversation turns to the possibility of Canada decriminalizing marijuana.
Senate reports, House committees, studies and proposals. Outside, the mid-morning lineup of tractor-trailers waiting to cross the border stretches back for nearly a kilometre.
Assistant port director for trade, Brandt wastes little time as he dismisses the issue. He's wearing a colourful Christmas tie, but he's all business when it comes to drugs.
"It's still illegal here," he says simply. "I don't think it's going to change our approach. We'll proceed just like we usually do."
While Canada appears headed toward a liberalization of its drug policies, U.S. officials here say they're more determined than ever to crack down on the lucrative marijuana trade.
The War on Terror may have pushed the War on Drugs off front pages, but increased security and scrutiny post 9/11 has led to a B.C. bud bonanza at the border.
The No. 1 priority at the borders has shifted to searching for weapons of mass destruction. No. 2 is drugs. But during the past year, customs officials have seen a spike in pot seizures involving commercial trucks. The Pacific Highway crossing alone has seen more than 3,700 kilograms of marijuana confiscated in over two dozen busts since Oct. 4, 2001.
The pot begins its journey at a value of about $6,600 a kilo. By the time it reaches California -- the most popular destination for B.C. weed -- the marijuana is worth twice that amount, a figure that put the recent spate of seizures at a street value of $49 million.
"We are required to examine more people, more trucks and more cars," says Mike Milne, Seattle press officer for the U.S. Customs service. "By the mere fact that we're looking at more stuff, we're bound to find more."
Milne describes the pattern of seizures as being similar to the carnival game "whack-a-mole" -- no sooner do officers crack down on one port of entry than smugglers move to another.
Caught in the middle are the truckers -- some of whom appear to know what they're carrying and some of whom do not. Ignorance is no defence but it may determine whether or not an individual is charged with simple possession as opposed to possession with the intent to distribute, which brings a much harsher penalty.
Whatcom County court files are filled with indictments against drivers who have been busted with amounts ranging from eight to 680 kilos of pot in their vehicles.
Glass bottles, furniture, wire, cardboard, waste paper, recycled clothing, beer, bottled water, PVC tubing, blueberries, salal, steel, mushrooms, even chilled fish -- if it crosses the border, smugglers have attempted to use it to conceal shipments of marijuana.
B.C. Trucking Association president Paul Landry says drivers can easily find themselves used as unsuspecting mules.
"As long as part of your truck is somewhere and in someone else's control, anything can happen," he says. "I don't know what the answer is. I don't know how a driver can be 100-per-cent satisfied he's not carrying contraband."
If border control seems tight right now, Milne says it's about to get even tougher as authorities on both sides of the border work to streamline the inspection process.
Beginning last summer, U.S. Customs started taking applications from brokers, freight forwarders and carriers for membership in a customs-trade partnership program dubbed C-TPAT.
Most crucial for the trucking business is the Free and Secure Trade program between the United States and Canada.
Operating along the same principles as the NEXUS program for individuals, FAST requires carriers, shippers, drivers and importers to undergo criminal checks and detailed customs approval in order to avoid additional scrutiny at the border.
In order to meet FAST standards, carriers' buildings and yards should be constructed of materials that resist unlawful entry. International, domestic, high-value and dangerous cargo should be segregated within the warehouse by a "safe, caged or otherwise fenced-in area."
All that information, along with detailed descriptions of cargo, will be conveyed to inspectors before trucks ever arrive at the border, hopefully making it virtually impossible to sneak weapons of terror -- or drugs -- across. Milne says applicants with a history of criminal problems will lose out.
"Your track record is one of the considerations, and that's whether you're an importer, whether you're a driver or whether you're a carrier," he says. "It will certainly be a factor in our examination of their application."
Back at the truck crossing, Brandt bristles with pride as he gives a tour of his facility and all the high-tech equipment officers use to do their jobs. Since Sept. 11, 2001, he has received more staff, more resources and the exceptionally high-tech Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System, which can scan a trailer in seconds to find hidden compartments and contraband.
They've yet to seize a single weapon of mass destruction.
A cynic might say that the War on Terror by any other name is, in fact, the War on Drugs.
"I don't have that opinion," says Brandt. "I suppose that's a perception that could be out there."
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