DERBY LINE, Vt. – Something didn’t seem right to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent.

It was about 8 a.m. on Oct. 29 at the border crossing at the top of Interstate 91.

The driver of a big pickup truck was pulling a flatbed trailer with a car on it. The driver said he’d taken the car to Canada to have it worked on.

But the vehicle didn’t quite fit the trailer. The driver’s story didn’t quite fit the situation. So the agent sent the driver and his truck for secondary inspection.

A drug-smelling Border Patrol dog showed special interest in the trailer. When agents pulled up the bed they found about 525 pounds of high-grade marijuana. It was one of the larger recent marijuana seizures along the border, but it’s something officers have grown accustomed to.

“Over the last decade or two Canadian organized crime has gotten into smuggling, particularly marijuana, in a businesslike way,” said Amos Hamilton, the Customs and Border Protection port director at Derby Line. “Loads we get are professionally shrink wrapped. It’s quality controlled. They have a product and they need it to move.”

Hamilton let a reporter talk to the agents who made the seizure on the condition the agents not be identified.

The seizures are large and small. The Border Patrol gives the marijuana, which has the street name of Quebec Gold, a street value of $4,500 to $5,000 a pound, giving the Oct. 29 shipment a street value of more than $2.6 million.

And the marijuana isn’t just smuggled in trucks. Smugglers will carry it across the border in backpacks, on sleds pulled by snowmobiles, on all-terrain vehicles; at least once smugglers used a helicopter.

It’s been packed in sealed maple syrup cans. Hockey bags are a smugglers’ favorite, frequently packing marijuana in vacuum-packed bags, which is thought to make it more difficult for drug sniffing dogs to detect it.

Border agents say the marijuana has been destined for places as far away as Miami, but most is headed to Boston and New York.

“It is supposedly one of the most potent forms of marijuana around,” said Lt. Terry Kineen, a narcotics investigator for the New Hampshire State Police. “Quebec Gold is trading ounce for ounce with cocaine.”

The power of the money is allegedly corrupting government officials. In September a Canada Customs officer with more than 20 years experience was arrested in the United States on smuggling conspiracy charges.

Rose Chetrit Palmer, 51, of Stanstead, Quebec, across the border from Derby Line, is free on bail pending trial.

Canadian marijuana isn’t the run of the mill dope found on the streets of American cities, but it is turning up and down the East Coast.

It’s several times more expensive than the marijuana smuggled into the United States from Mexico and Columbia, drug agents say.

“It’s highly unlikely you would see this hitting the street in any grand scale clearly because of the price,” said Chief Inspector Keith Sadler, the head of the narcotics division for the Philadelphia police department. “It’s top shelf. That’s the difference between drinking some low-level homemade beer and Heineken.”

At least part of the increase in marijuana seizures is due to the heightened security measures in place on the border since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

The Border Patrol has tripled the number of agents along the northern border. There is a heightened awareness among Customs and Border Protection agents and there are high-tech devices like X-ray machines that can give agents a glimpse inside a truck, enough to give them an idea if a truck needs to be more thoroughly searched.

Now the smugglers are getting going again.

“There was a lull after 9/11,” said Border Patrol Agent John Pfeifer, the patrol agent in charge of the Derby area. “It’s pretty much up and running full speed.”

In the past 10 years the number of marijuana cases investigated by the Quebec Provincial Police has increased more than 500 percent, said Quebec Provincial Police Lt. Jean Audette, who is in charge of special programs for the department.

Audette said the marijuana trade in Quebec was controlled by outlaw motorcycle gangs and most of the marijuana was for sale in Canada.

“We don’t know exactly the level of the smuggling between the U.S. and Canada,” Audette said. “We know that marijuana is going to Ontario, New York, Vermont, Maine.”

Quebec’s motorcycle gangs are notoriously violent and Canadian police have started to see weapons previously unheard of north of the border. Canada has strict gun control laws.

Four years ago, a local officer in Quebec was shot by a marijuana courier. He was saved by his bullet proof vest, Audette said.

“In some cases we seized assault firearms, AK47s. We’ve seized Uzis,” Audette said.

“They’re killing each other. We don’t have any innocent people (as victims). I hope that it will not happen,” Audette said.

But so far, the violence hasn’t crossed the border with the smuggled marijuana. Most of the drug killings in Quebec have been among the traffickers, Audette said.

“We’ve apprehended people with weapons,” said U.S. Border Patrol Spokeswoman Leslie Lawson. “Sometimes they have two way radios, GPS.”

Audette said Canadian law enforcement officials were working with their U.S. counterparts to fight the smuggling.

“We try every time to go to the higher level of the organized crime,” Audette said. “It’s very difficult to do that.”

Paula Grenier, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, wouldn’t say much about the investigations in the marijuana smuggling.

“We have made a number of arrests up in that area. There are a number of ongoing operations,” she said. “We are going to continue to investigate criminal organizations that are involved in narcotics smuggling.”



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