When Krysta Edwards crossed over from B.C. to Washington in June, border officers allegedly found a hidden compartment in the 23-year-old North Vancouver resident’s Ford Explorer. Inside was 27 kg of Benzylpiperazine, or BZP. Despite its origins as a treatment for intestinal worms in cattle, BZP has found new life as the it party drug at night clubs, and the little blue pills recovered from Edwards’ truck, stamped to look like Homer Simpson, were worth US$1 million. For those on the front lines of American law enforcement, it was yet another reminder of the huge synthetic drug industry booming in Canada. “They used to just throw marijuana in hockey bags and stuff it in the trunk, but now we’re seeing a level of sophistication similar to what we’ve been dealing with on the southern border [with Mexico],” says Chief Thomas Schreiber, with U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Blaine, Wash.
Canada is well known for its B.C. Bud, a highly-potent form of marijuana. But a new industry is thriving. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), in its 2009 report, said Canada is the largest ecstasy supplier to the U.S. Meanwhile, Japan says Canada is the single biggest source of seized ecstasy tablets. Asian-Canadian gangs have also ramped up the production of methampetamines, shipping vast quantities to the U.S. and overseas. According to the U.N., Canada accounts for 62 per cent of the meth seized in Japan by weight, and 83 per cent in Australia. The spoils are enormous. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates Canadian drug traffickers now generate between US$33.7 billion and US$56.2 billion each year from U.S. drug sales.
No wonder Canada’s already tarnished reputation is falling further. In May, after gangland killings in Vancouver, the Economist magazine asked “British Columbia or Colombia?” Lowbrow crime fiction has caught on, too. In his novel KLLRS last year, one of crime writer Phil Bowie’s characters gushes: “Canada is the new Colombia.” Even academics sound the alarm. “Colombia North” is how B.C. criminologist Darryl Plecas puts it.
Plecas foresaw the move to synthetics “years ago.” For starters, production times are infinitely smaller: a drug lab can produce new product over a weekend versus 90 days for marijuana. And a lab can pound out $1-million worth per day versus an annual $500,000 for a marijuana grow-op, he says.
Increasingly, the RCMP is finding sophisticated “large-scale” synthetic drug labs—eclipsing the small, mobile kitchen labs of the past. They’re going “ultra-sophisticated,” says Plecas, and “have the wherewithal to set up operations in remote areas, underground, in tractor trailers and mobile units.”
The country’s grip on synthetic drug production has placed Canadian organized crime “in a position of global strength,” says Supt. Brian Cantera of the B.C. RCMP. Organized crime is using the same infrastructure, contacts, markets and trade routes as with marijuana, he adds. Indeed, it was the profits from marijuana production that allowed criminal gangs to diversify and get into synthetic drug production in the first place, he says.
Canada wasn’t always a haven for ecstasy. Until a decade ago, says UNODC research officer Thomas Pietschmann, the Netherlands and Belgium had a lock on the market, with powerful Israeli and Russian crime syndicates trafficking the psychedelic drug to America’s shores. Then Europe clamped down on precursors, chemicals used to make synthetic drugs. By 2001, ecstasy, which sells for between $5 to $25 per tablet, was making its way to Canada as bulk powder. Producers were “tableting” it here, and sending it into the U.S. via overland routes. Now the entire manufacturing process is done here.
The scale of Canada’s synthetic drug industry can be measured by all the Canadians sitting in foreign prisons. Six are up on charges in California after a massive two-year investigation dubbed “Operation Candystore” broke up a drug ring allegedly moving methamphetamine and ecstasy from B.C. to California. In June, two B.C. men were sentenced to life in prison in Australia for smuggling $130 million worth of ecstasy and cocaine hidden in computers—the fifth-biggest drug bust in Aussie history. Also this spring, two Canadians were sentenced to 10 and 20 years in U.S. federal prisons for trafficking ecstasy, and another was arrested in California with $7-million worth of ecstasy hidden in his tow truck. Meanwhile a B.C. man dubbed a “Canadian drug don” by Asian media led Indian police to that country’s largest meth factory.
How can Canada tackle its new drug problem? Pietschmann says it must intercept more of the raw chemicals at its ports. Ottawa has tightened its rules around precursors, which are also used to produce legitimate pharmaceuticals, but criminal groups continue to thrive on illegal precursor imports. But drugs like BZP highlight the challenges. Canada has yet to ban BZP outright, as the U.S. has done—and by the time it does, another chemical may have taken its place on dance floors. “It’s a constant, morphing, ever-changing product,” says Plecas. “They’re not called designer drugs for nothing.”