The manifest said the cargo in the tractor-trailer that pulled up at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge on Jan. 20 was "phone accessories." But a search inside the trailer turned up something quite different – multiple pallets with boxes filled with vacuum-sealed bags of nearly a thousand pounds of marijuana, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
A few days later, another search of a truck at the Lewiston bridge led to the discovery of 1,070 pounds of marijuana. That shipment was manifested as "cardboard."
At the Peace Bridge on March 11, a shipment of "empty plastic bottles" turned out to be 655 pounds of marijuana.
“Once again, as a result of the dedication and vigilance of CBP Officers assigned to the Port of Buffalo, illegal contraband was prevented from hitting the streets of our great nation,” Acting Buffalo Port Director Gaetano Cordone said at the time in a press release. Then on March 26, another giant shipment of vacuum-sealed marijuana – 1,227 pounds – was found tucked behind stacks of packaged paper towels.
Last year, the Covid-19 pandemic shut down the U.S.-Canada border to nonessential travel. But commercial traffic was allowed to continue.
Among the trucks that continued to stream over the border into Western New York hauling an array of essential and legal products, Customs and Border Protection officers based in Buffalo keep finding unprecedented amounts of marijuana. The agency seized more than 40,000 pounds of marijuana their last fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, nearly 10 times more than was seized during the previous fiscal year. That trend shows no sign of abating with another 20,000 pounds of marijuana seized since then, according to the latest data provided by customs officials.
Where is this marijuana coming from?
Canada legalized cannabis in 2018, establishing a set of laws that regulate its use, production and sale. New York just joined a growing number of states on this side of the border to legalize adult use of marijuana. But the federal government in the U.S. still categorizes cannabis as a "Schedule I" controlled substance and bringing marijuana over the border remains against the law in both countries.
Canadian authorities regulate the growing, distribution, sale and consumption of marijuana and other cannabis-based products. The government issues permits for growing cannabis commercially, putting specific limits on the number of plants that can be grown.
However, law enforcement authorities have discovered that while many growers stick to the rules, others don't – and they use their permits as cover to grow much more than they're supposed to sell legally and at a huge profit on the illicit market. There are also purely illegal operations with no permits at all taking a chance on not getting caught.
"There are criminal organizations that are taking advantage of the loopholes," said Kevin Kelly, special agent in charge of the Homeland Security Investigations office in Buffalo. The agency works closely with Canadian counterparts on prosecuting the criminal enterprises behind the marijuana smuggling operations.
Canadian cannabis is considered high-grade marijuana. The vast majority of marijuana grown in Canada is grown inside greenhouses and has much higher levels of THC – the chemical component in cannabis that creates its signature euphoric effect – than what's grown outside, which is common in the United States' West Coast and in Mexico.
"It's a different caliber of product," Kelly said.
Canadian cannabis can sell for $3,000 to $5,000 a pound on the illicit market in the U.S. "Clearly, the demand in the U.S. is great," Kelly said.
And the plants grown inside greenhouses can produce "flower" over four growing cycles a year, generating two pounds of marijuana per plant, Kelly said.
Then there's the fact that the "flower" is a perishable product.
"You can't store it so they just shotgun it through the border," Kelly said.
What's being done about it?
All commercial vehicles coming over the border from Canada must go through an inspection process.
Before they arrive, the drivers send an electronic manifest ahead to Customs and Border Protection that is supposed to speed up that process – but it also serves as a screening process of possible contraband.
"The individuals involved in drug trafficking and smuggling go to great lengths to try to circumvent the system," Cordone said.
A recent court case involving what's believed to be the largest seizure of marijuana at the Buffalo border shows how one smuggling attempt was thwarted.
The driver pulled up at the Peace Bridge Port of Entry at 11:22 p.m. on June 25. His manifest indicated his trailer contained 55 storage containers headed for a warehouse in New Jersey.
An X-ray machine picked up some "inconsistencies of the cargo," according to court documents and the truck was referred to a Peace Bridge warehouse loading dock for physical inspection. The crates were unloaded and inside, CBP officers found thousands of bags of "a green leafy substance" that tested positive for marijuana. It turned out to be nearly 10,000 pounds of marijuana worth about $20 million on the illicit market. They also found three trackers in the load that investigators believe were put there to allow the smugglers to track the location of the shipment and re-route it during the trip.
Homeland Security Investigation special agents paid a visit to the warehouse where an employee told them they had no record of a shipment from that driver headed there, an indication that the plan was to re-route it once the goods made it over the border, according to court documents.
The driver was arrested but then charges were dropped. That investigation continues.
Prosecuting the drivers has proved tricky – and that's "because of Covid," said James P. Kennedy Jr., the U.S. attorney for the Western District of New York.
"Drivers are prohibited from inspecting their load," Kennedy said.
Before the pandemic, it was customary for the driver to get out on the loading dock and watch as their trailers were filled. Then they would sign off on their electronic manifest.
But now, most companies won't let their drivers on the loading docks during pickups and deliveries.
"So proving they had knowledge of their contents is very difficult," Kennedy said.
But many investigations go beyond the driver and to the source. Investigators with HSI routinely work with their Canadian counterparts to go after the criminal enterprises behind the smuggling.
In August 2020, a Canadian task force that included HSI personnel were part of "Project Woolwich," an investigation into a wide network of illegal cannabis growing and smuggling that stretched from British Columbia to Ontario. Twenty-six search warrants yielded more than 100,000 illegal cannabis plants, hundreds of illegal cannabis vape pens, $2.5 million in Canadian currency and more than half a million American dollars.
"The Canadians are very cooperative," Kelly said. "Even though the border is closed we have not lost contact with them. We are communicating daily."
It's not just Canada
To be sure, there are controlled substances, including marijuana, being smuggled from the U.S. into Canada too. In the last year, about 20,000 pounds of cannabis products was intercepted, the Canada Border Services Agency reported.
And law enforcement in the Buffalo area have seized large shipments of marijuana that originated in Western states where marijuana has been legalized.
"It's a huge issue in all jurisdictions," Kennedy said. "They produce a glut of marijuana and they flood the black market with it."
Advocates for legalization say that less regulation of cannabis and an end to national prohibition of marijuana would dampen the market for illicit growing.
Jack Porcari, a cannabis advocate and former executive director of Western New York NORML, pointed out that in states where marijuana has been legalized, cannabis dispensaries were considered essential businesses during the pandemic "but not essential enough to have its own bank account."
"Cannabis needs to be like growing tomatoes," he said. "The policy is so draconian."
New York's new legalization laws can't address federal laws, but do include provisions that continue to make possession and unauthorized sale of large amounts of marijuana – over 10 pounds – a felony. The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act also includes tax penalties for unauthorized cannabis companies, including growing operations and dispensaries, similar to how tobacco is regulated.