Two major drug busts at the Canada-United States border in the past two weeks come amid a recent surge in attempts to smuggle pot from Ontario to New York, according to U.S. law enforcement officials.
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) said in a Tuesday morning press conference that on June 13 its officers found 3,346 pounds of cannabis concealed within a shipment of peat moss headed from Ontario to the U.S. via the Peace Bridge, which connects Fort Erie, Ont., to Buffalo, N.Y.
That bust, worth in excess of US$5 million, represents the largest drug seizure in the history of the Buffalo port area, according to Rose Brophy, CBP’s director of field operations.
Gurpreet Singh, a 30-year-old Canadian resident and Indian national, was arrested and charged with unlawfully importing and possessing with intent to distribute 1,000 kilograms or more of marijuana. If convicted, he faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison with a maximum of life.
Singh made an initial appearance in front of a U.S. magistrate and is being detained until a detention hearing scheduled for June 17. A federal grand jury formally indicted him on the above charges on Tuesday, and added a charge for smuggling merchandise into the U.S.
Saturday’s bust followed a June 5 seizure at the Peace Bridge, which saw border agents uncover 1,800 pounds of pot hidden amongst a shipment of coffee makers.
Arshdeep Singh, a 21-year-old Indian national also living in Canada, has been charged with unlawful transportation in relation to this incident.
Because he was transporting less than 1,000 kilograms of pot, any conviction would bring a comparatively lower sentence: a mandatory minimum of five years in prison with a maximum of 40 years, as well as a US$5-million fine.
Together, the two major busts represent more than two-and-a-half tonnes of cannabis — a value of roughly US$7.5 million, according to border officials.
Brophy said CBP has seen a 4,000 per cent spike in the volume of drugs being transported across the border during the pandemic.
Since March 21, border agents have made 286 seizures, totalling more 8,700 pounds of narcotics. Last year’s figures over the same period indicate a higher overall number of drug busts — 549 seizures — but far less in terms of total product, with only 216 pounds of narcotics recovered.
Brophy said that while the passenger volumes have dropped nearly 95 per cent at the border during the pandemic, commercial volumes are down only 25 per cent.
This allows CBP to put more of its resources towards identifying potential drug smuggling cases, she said.
Kevin Kelly of Homeland Security, which assists CBP in investigations, said narcotics seized in the past month have a total street value of more than US$20 million.
Kelly added that an additional 1,500 pounds of cannabis were seized in Canada in the past month as part of a joint operation between U.S. and Canadian border officials.
“The co-operation with Canadians is absolutely the most impressive and paramount I’ve ever seen,” he said Tuesday.
Though cannabis is legal in Canada and in some parts of the U.S., recreational-use marijuana remains illegal in the state of New York and federally illegal south of the border, and transporting the drug from either side of the border is not permitted.