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Canada Launches Effort to Halt Marijuana for Cocaine Trade - 2004-02-13

Illegal marijuana crops worth billions of dollars each year are flourishing in the Canadian province of British Columbia. Both Canadian and American authorities are now making large seizures of not only drugs, but also weapons, houses and boats. The illicit plant is being traded not for cash, but cocaine.

Marijuana growing in British Columbia is estimated to be worth billions of dollars a year. It is one of the province's major illegal exports. In most cases, the high-grade drug is being sent southward into the United States, exchanged directly for cocaine that has made its way through U.S. territory to the Canadian border. Canada is now the second highest source of marijuana in the United States.

While fighting the illegal trade, Canadian authorities have recently been making large seizures. During a series of raids on one day late last year, Canadian police agencies confiscated one Cessna aircraft, three boats, 22 different types of weapons including two machine guns, 3,300 marijuana plants, and replica police jackets.

Just this past week, police raided six high end homes in a Vancouver suburb and confiscated 4,000 plants. Police are planning on confiscating two of the houses if they can prove the owners were the marijuana farmers.

Corporal Scott Rintoul is with the Drug Awareness Section of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Vancouver. He says weapons, cocaine, and other drugs started being used as currency in exchange for marijuana because of changes to banking laws.

"There were some restrictions put on by the federal government and provincial government on how much you could transfer and how much money you could change," he said. "So it became very disruptive and it was a challenge to change money. Almost overnight, they realize that they can actually just take marijuana across the border and trade that for cocaine. And that started about 1995 and that continues today. And that's sort of the big trade now is marijuana being traded for guns, for cocaine, for Methamphetamine, which then comes back into Canada."

The Organized Crime Agency in Vancouver estimates there are currently 10,000 commercial growing operations throughout the province. Each location contains an average of 400 plants that provides three or four harvests every year, which earns the grower over $1 million. On the streets of Los Angeles, the drug gets $5,000 for about one half of a kilogram and as much as $8,000 in eastern cities like New York.

Criminology professor Darryl Plecas, of the University College of the Fraser Valley near Vancouver, has studied the marijuana trade for years.

He says trading marijuana for cocaine is lowering the cash cost to bring large amounts of cocaine into Canada. This is worsening an already dangerous trade.

"If I want to purchase a huge amount of cocaine, now that I have marijuana, I don't need the same amount of money," said Darryl Plecas. "I just need to get my hands on enough marijuana, which matches what they're asking for in cocaine and away I go. So, all of sudden you in effect reduce your cost of cocaine to buy it for trafficking purposes to a very small amount. This [is a] very dangerous situation."

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency opened a Vancouver office in June of last year. The Resident Agent in Charge, Ken Peterson says the size of the marijuana trade is getting the agency's attention. He says the new trade of exchanging marijuana for cocaine has resulted in a significant increase of trafficking and as a result, arrests and seizures.

"Oh it's a major concern. The BC [British Columbia] bud - Canada and especially western Canada is a source country for the BC bud," said Mr. Peterson. "The United States gets their cocaine both from Central and South America. The free flow and the larger seizures of cocaine being seized both at the American and the Canadian side of the border has increased significantly lately as the marijuana coming south into the United States. The seizures and the intelligence has also increased significantly recently."

To help this growing battle against the marijuana and cocaine trade, the new Canadian government of Prime Minister Paul Martin will soon reintroduce legislation to deal with the marijuana issue.