Canada may fuel boom in pot exports to US

It was the bus driver who noticed something suspicious. According to school officials, a driver for Blaine High School in northwestern Washington State thought something was strange about students' carrying unusually full bags to school and then never taking them back home. He alerted U.S. authorities, who boarded the bus on the morning of Feb. 20 and allegedly found 8 lbs. of marijuana, valued at $25,000, hidden inside a teenage girl's backpack. Prosecutors allege that the minor, 16, was getting paid $300 a trip to work as a drug mule for smugglers moving marijuana into the U.S. from Canada. The teen's home, in Point Roberts, Wash., borders British Columbia in an area with relatively light border patrol, which would have made it easy for her to get the drugs from Canada before getting on the bus.

Expelled from school and charged with possessing marijuana with intent to deliver, the girl has a hearing scheduled for Aug. 23 in Bellingham, Wash. Deputy prosecutor Thomas Verge has said he will probably ask for an exceptionally long sentence that would put the teen behind bars until her 21st birthday. The controversy has upset the community. "She was a wonderful young girl," says her principal, Dan Newell. "I wouldn't have ever thought that if anyone was going to haul marijuana across the border, it would be this lady."

Nor would anyone have thought that the cross-border traffic of illegal drugs would become one of the knottiest areas of disagreement between the U.S. and its northern neighbor. An estimated 880 to 2,200 tons of marijuana are grown in Canada, according to a new report from Canadian police. About 90% of the commercial crop winds up in the U.S., where its street value ranges from $5 billion to $25 billion. Although only 5% of pot in the U.S. comes from Canada, the trade is flourishing because of high demand in the U.S. and the comparatively mild punishments in Canada for growers and traffickers.

The U.S. seized more than 48,000 lbs. of marijuana along the Canadian border last year, nearly double the 26,000 lbs. it retrieved in 2002, according to a U.S. State Department report. There have been seizures all along the border, in Montana, North Dakota, Michigan, Ohio and other states. Canadian pot has cachet in the U.S. because of its reputation for being especially potent. The featured brand is BC Bud which is grown in British Columbia and has become synonymous with the high-grade marijuana grown throughout Canada. Once in the U.S., the pot is exchanged for cash, and sometimes cocaine or guns, which are then smuggled back to Canada.

Although the actual potency of BC Bud varies from batch to batch, depending on how it's grown, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says that as much as 25% of BC Bud is made of the psychoactive drug tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). In contrast, the pot that the hippie generation smoked in the 1970s had only 2% THC content, and most pot consumed in the U.S. today averages about 7% THC.

White House drug czar John Walters blames BC Bud in part for the increased number of pot-related emergency room incidents, which have more than doubled, from 54,000 in 1996 to 119,000 in 2002. Those incidents range from accidents and injuries to unexpected reactions to the drug. "Canada is exporting to us the crack of marijuana," Walters told reporters in April. Others dispute Walters' claims. "Domestic American marijuana is probably a little bit better," says Richard Stratton, editor in chief of High Times, a magazine that covers marijuana issues. But the BC Bud name is so well regarded that some dealers pass off other varieties as Canadian to fetch the $3,000-to-$10,000-per-lb. price. And BC Bud seems to be everywhere. "It's hella easy to get," says "Angelo," 22, a Seattle resident who asked to be identified by a pseudonym. "You can usually go to [a convenience store] between 1:30 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. and ask people who you think smoke bud," he says.

On the Canadian side, the drug is even more ubiquitous. At the popular New Amsterdam Cafe in downtown Vancouver, customers openly smoke marijuana. "People come with pot. We are a business, though, so we have a $2 minimum cafe charge [for snacks and drinks]," says cafe manager Scott Heardy. Inspector David Nelmes, who is in charge of drugs for the Vancouver police department, tells TIME, "I can't remember the last time a member of the Vancouver police department arrested someone for smoking a joint. Frankly, who's got time?" If passed within the year, as seems likely, new Canadian legislation would decriminalize possession of less than 15 grams of marijuana, meaning that offenders would be slapped with only the equivalent of a traffic ticket. That approach is a far cry from the one that is taken in U.S. states like Oklahoma, where a person caught smoking dope could get up to a year in prison, although probation is more common.

Canada's attitude toward small-scale toking up has led some U.S. officials to blame the northerners for the influx of BC Bud in America. "If the perception is that it will be easier to get marijuana in Canada ... then it creates problems at the border," Paul Cellucci, U.S. ambassador to Canada, said at a Toronto Board of Trade dinner in February. Indeed, the trade has led to an increase in drive-by shootings in Canada by rival dealers, and to "grow-rips," in which competing clans break into growers' houses to steal their crops, according to Canadian police. The body of the suspected ringleader of a trafficking group was found stabbed in the neck in a ditch in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, in November 2002. "It's still a dangerous drug," says James Capra, the DEA's chief of domestic operations. "People are killing each other over it."

Currently, a grower in Canada who has been convicted can expect less than two years of house arrest and a trafficker anywhere from three months to five years, served either at home or in prison, compared with the minimum punishment of five to 10 years that most convicted traffickers and growers receive in U.S. federal court. But as the violence has increased and cultivation of the crop has moved into residential areas, Canada has begun cracking down on its estimated 50,000 commercial pot growers. Over the past four years, police in Vancouver have seized $288 million worth of marijuana and $8.7 million worth of growing equipment. In Barrie, Ont., in January, police confiscated 30,000 marijuana plants, worth $23 million, inside a former Molson brewery.

One hot, muggy morning in July, a TIME reporter accompanied the Vancouver police as an officer thumped on the door of a two-story brick-and-panel house on a leafy street of manicured lawns. Inside, officers discovered a basement filled wall to wall with more than 300 glossy female cannabis bushes. That bust is pretty routine, but the BC Bud keeps flowing. In the past four years, Vancouver police have made more than 1,500 others, or about one a day.

Reported by Ben Bergman/Blaine, Laura Blue/New York, Chris Daniels/Toronto, Deborah

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