When U.S. border officers inspected a Canadian truck at the Peace Bridge near Buffalo, New York, last Saturday, they found 3,100 pounds of marijuana hidden in a shipment of peat moss. The $5 million haul, while unusually large, is part of a surge in drug seizures at the Canada-U.S. border, officials said.
Less than two weeks earlier, at the same bridge, U.S. border officers found $3 million worth of marijuana hidden in crates of coffee grounds. The drivers in both cases were arrested on federal drug charges, which carry prison terms of up to 40 years.
Drug seizures have jumped at the crossings in northern New York and Detroit since the Canada-U.S. border closed for nonessential travel in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The regions account for the busiest cross-border freight links with Canada.
“I honestly don’t know why it’s happening, but it’s definitely a trend,” Kris Grogan, a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) spokesperson in Detroit, told FreightWaves.
Marijuana accounts for the majority of drug seizures. But officers are finding larger quantities of other drugs, including fentanyl, the powerful opioid linked to a surge in overdose deaths in North America.
The CBP’s Buffalo field office reported the biggest spike: a 4,000% increase since the closure. Officers have seized over 8,700 pounds of illegal drugs in 286 incidents from March 21 to June 14, mostly from tractor-trailers.
Drug seizures increase as non-essential traffic drops
The spike in drug seizures came as noncommercial traffic slowed to a fraction of its pre-pandemic levels. In the case of the Buffalo office’s crossings, including the Peace Bridge, commercial vehicle traffic also was down by 25%.
But Mike Niezgoda, a CBP spokesperson in Buffalo, told FreightWaves that border officers aren’t simply catching more smuggled drugs because of the reduction in traffic. Niezgoda said he wouldn’t speculate on what’s driving the increase.
“We’re always looking for vehicles trafficking drugs,” Niezgoda said. “But situations where a person has a pound or a couple of pounds of marijuana, those are gone because of the traffic restriction.”
Officers are typically finding drug shipments after cargo scans detect something suspicious. Drivers also face additional scrutiny about whether their trips and cargo qualify as essential for the purposes of the border closure.
“If they see anomalies, then they’re able to do a further inspection of the tractor-trailer,” Niezgoda said.
Canada’s legalized marijuana may not explain surge
Canada legalized marijuana and other cannabis products for recreational purposes in 2018. While some U.S. states have legalized or decriminalized marijuana, it remains illegal at the federal level.
But that doesn’t fully explain the apparent rise of illegal marijuana from Canada to the U.S. The U.S. border points in Detroit also have seen a surge in marijuana seizures along with other drugs. Officers there seized more than 3,000 pounds of marijuana at the border during the first 60 days of the COVID-19 closure, six times the total for 2019.
Michigan legalized recreational cannabis and continues to have a significant black market as well. Smuggling marijuana from across the border is illegal in Canada, too, and carries the additional U.S. federal penalties.
“Maybe it’s related to supply and demand,” Grogan said.
Cross-border drug smuggling goes both ways
The smuggling of drugs and other contraband goes in both directions. In May, Canada Border Services officers found 20 bricks of cocaine worth C$2.5 million (US$1.85 million) after stopping a tractor-trailer at the U.S.-Canada border in British Columbia.
Canadian authorities also target cannabis smuggling before it leaves Canada. The Canada Border Services Agency seized more than 3,000 pounds of cannabis from two facilities in Toronto. The cannabis was set to be smuggled to the United States, the CBSA said.
U.S. border officials say the seizures should serve as a warning to cross-border truck drivers who knowingly smuggle drugs.
They also highlight the importance of all truck drivers knowing their loads.
“When cargo comes to the border, we already know it’s coming,” Grogan said. “If drivers are thinking something has been tampered with, if something doesn’t seem right, they should speak up.”