Canada: The new global drug lord

Canada is a leading producer, and exporter, of illegal synthetic drugs


Canada: The new global drug lordThe United States and its allies have been prosecuting the war on drugs for almost a century. They have never looked like they’re winning but they have carried on regardless. In the past year, however, the supporters of drug prohibition have suffered some important tactical defeats. The bipartisan consensus in Washington, although still powerful, is beginning to slip. But there is a strategic issue now facing supporters of prohibition that presents them with their toughest challenge yet, and Canada will be a key battleground. This will unfold in the next decade and may bring an end to the war on drugs, which has consistently failed to achieve its stated aims despite devouring hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ dollars.

At the heart of this problem lie synthetic drugs—pills that are changing the rules, pushing out the old organic masters, cocaine and heroin, and turning the geopolitics of narcotics upside down. It is something that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is beginning to fret about.

For years, UNODC and its boss, Antonio Maria Costa, have been among the most vocal supporters of the war on drugs. UNODC has been the United States’ spearhead for its global campaign (it is the only UN agency for which Washington coughs up its contribution on time every year without moaning about it). And appointments like Costa’s are carefully vetted by the Americans. He and his colleagues have long demanded ever-more punitive responses against drug users and traffickers with a rhetoric that stands in sharp contrast to the usual strains of Kumbaya coming out of most UN agencies. I was shocked when Sandro Calvani, Costa’s representative in Bogota and a biologist by background, told me, “If somebody should tell me that they have found a new Agent Orange gas that kills all coca but damages the environment very heavily, I would consider it.”

But earlier this year, a note of despair could be heard in Antonio Maria Costa’s voice when he addressed the 10-year review of UNODC in Vienna. Despite an intense policing and PR campaign in the major drug producer and consumer areas around the world, the use of drugs has been steadily rising in volume and spreading in geographical reach. The latest region to fall under the dark shadow of South America’s cocaine cartels is West Africa—countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia, fresh from a decade of diamond-driven fratricide, are now used as staging posts for cocaine export to Europe. The wealth and power of the criminal gangs who control these vast markets have ballooned. There has been no concomitant increase in resources available to law enforcement.

In recognition of the difficulties facing the U.S.’s policy on narcotics, the Obama administration quietly told its official representatives to stop using the phrase “war on drugs,” at UNODC’s review conference. A month later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton crossed another line on an official visit to Mexico City when she became the first senior American official to admit that demand for cocaine and cannabis use in the United States is a central driver of the drug problem.

But the most vocal criticism of the war on drugs comes from the developing world and especially South America. It’s been denounced by countless senior lawmakers, law enforcement officers and judges, especially in two countries most devastated by the trade—Brazil and Mexico. In February, three former presidents from Brazil, Colombia and Mexico published a searing critique of American policies, highlighting how their countries bear the brunt of the violence and instability generated by the criminal trade in drugs.

Canada—and Vancouver in particular—has had a few beginners’ lessons in the past couple of years about how distressing the violence associated with wholesale drug trafficking, as opposed to mere drug consumption, can be. But if UNODC is correct in its prognosis, the drug problem in Canada is about to get worse, not better. The reason for this lies in shifting patterns of drug consumption.

In the past two years, heroin, cocaine and even cannabis consumption has levelled off—partly because supply is now satisfying demand. But at the same time, the use of synthetic drugs—chiefly methamphetamine, amphetamine and ecstasy (MDMA)—has begun to grow rapidly. The trend was already obvious to U.S. border guards in Washington state two years ago. At Oroville, just across from Osoyoos, B.C., U.S. customs officers told me that while marijuana and cocaine seizures remain at a constant level, they were finding increasingly large amounts of methamphetamine and ecstasy in trucks and cars going from Canada into the U.S.

While America boasts the largest number of laboratories producing these pills, Canada’s labs are the largest on the continent, especially the ecstasy factories. They are largely controlled by the Asian gangs and Hells Angels chapters who both played such a big role in turning up the violence associated with the cocaine and marijuana industries in the greater Vancouver area. UNODC’s World Drug Report 2009 points out that “Canada has grown to be the most important producer of MDMA for North America, and since 2006, all ecstasy laboratories reported have been large-capacity facilities operated principally by Asian organized crime groups.”

The chemicals required for methamphetamine production, known as precursors, are relatively freely available and many can be purchased over the counter. Obviously, industrial scale manufacturing processes require industrial amounts of precursors. They are harder to obtain, and so both the U.S. and Canada have witnessed the growth in “smurfing” techniques—the laborious but effective process of purchasing legally available amounts of the precursors from pharmacies all over the country.

The prevalence of precursors, the availability of highly qualified chemists, and the high level of existing drug production (chiefly marijuana) in provinces like B.C. means that Canada is steadily transforming from being primarily a consumer country into a producer nation. There is evidence, the World Drug Report continues, that “Canada-based Asian organized crime groups and outlaw motorcycle gangs have significantly increased the amount of methamphetamine they manufacture and export for the U.S. market, but also for Oceania and East and Southeast Asia.”

Japan, Korea and parts of Southeast Asia are among the biggest consumers of synthetic drugs. If Canada becomes a pivotal manufacturer for this area as well as for consumers at home and in the U.S., then this is a game changer. The trend will simply overwhelm Canadian law enforcement, already stretched beyond capacity with the marijuana industry and the cocaine transit trade.

A similar phenomenon is now being detected in Europe. In Britain, police have been confronted with a significant growth in home-grown marijuana production (largely under the control of Vietnamese gangs). But amphetamine and ecstasy laboratories are also springing up there as well as in Holland and throughout eastern Europe. The European Union is the largest drug market in the world—once production processes become entrenched there, the narcotics can move to the customers across the Union without let or hindrance.

It will be a long time before there is a critical drop in cocaine and heroin consumption, but advances in narcotics production will eventually condemn them to the loneliness of a niche market. Instead, Canada, the U.S., Australia and Europe are set to become the industrial narcotics producers of the 21st century. At least this offers some hope for the current epicentres of organic drug production like Colombia and Afghanistan. It was Sandra Calvani, a committed drug warrior, who made the extremely perceptive observation:

“Cocaine has no future. Wherever amphetamines and synthetic drugs have arrived on the market, then there is always a big boom and it replaces everything: cocaine, heroin, the lot. It is a pill that looks like an aspirin and is much more user-friendly; it works fast and doesn’t involved the paraphernalia of injecting or sniffing, a much better kind of drug—more dangerous but it works. So the future is in the new drugs. The market will change and determine this. They don’t need the narco-traffickers. The future will be completely different.”

And that future may be just enough to persuade the Western world that the war on drugs needs a rethink.

Misha Glenny is the author of the bestselling McMafia: Journey through the Global Criminal Underworld, published by Anansi.

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Canada: The new global drug lord

  1. Very interesting article. Well done.

    • The most interesting part of the article to me is the manufacture of drugs by asian gangs and the hells angels. I do think that meth and all drugs need to be legalized and controlled. But meth and heroine really scare me. But through legalization there could be softer approaches to these drugs, like opium and white crosses instead of the heavy stuff. Thats a more reasonable approach to legalization and would curb peoples desire for harder drugs. Just like during the prohibition of alcohol you couldn't find beer or wine but there was all the hard stuff, you could drink, because it can command more money.

  2. Hey Harper.. way to fight the War on Drugs… youre losing badly. Time to pack it in!!

  3. It's pathetic that alcohol is legal and cannabis illegal

  4. We've never had a serious 'War on Drugs' in Canada. Our pathetic 'justice' system is a major part of the problem.

  5. fail. the sooner they realize tat the better. sure drugs hurt people but if they're stupid enough to
    get caught up in it they deserve it. The drug war is just another government scam to waste our money,
    incrementally remove our freedoms and control us even more.
    For anybody interested on this topic, you must see this very well done documentary:
    American Drug War: The Last White Hope

  6. Sandra Calvani cannot tell the difference between her ass and elbow.

    • Sandra Calvani is apparently working for UNODC. UNODCs reports are well-known for their lack of methodological rigour and political bias. So do not expect much from that UN agency, perceived as corrupt and accused of protecting corrupt staff in several occasions.

  7. The thing that prohibitionists don't seem to get is that legalization does not mean a free-for-all. Weed could be treated like alcohol and nicotine, but the harder stuff would be more tightly regulated, with offers of education and addiction treatment wherever you went to get your meth or coke or heroin. Nicotine is completely legal but its use is dropping thanks to money being put in to education and taxation. It was a hell of a lot easier to get any drug than it was to get alcohol before I was 19. Drug dealers do not ask for an ID. We've tried the justice system, it does not work to curb drug use or supply, in fact it's been the diametric opposite of success. Let's get some health and reason based approaches to the drug war. Also, if anyone tells you that any drug, heroin and meth included, is worse than alcohol, they are an idiot or a liar. Alcohol does not just affect the person who takes it, the way meth or heroin do. Alcohol is a socially accepted date rape drug, vehicular manslaughter enabler, and cause of many bad decisions. Its repercussions are enormous. Illegal drugs are not going away, let's take control of them rather than leave them in the hands of cold-blooded killers. If there's any one reason to end prohibition, it's looking back at the 20s and early 30s and the societal damage of Capone and his ilk. These gangs and cartels are just modern versions. One more reason for legalization: personal liberty. Our country was founded on that principle, just like our neighbour to the south. My morality is not your morality, which is a reason not to legislate it.

    • I find it enraging that you would suggest illegal drugs have no negative repercussions for people around the user. Try telling that to the family of a man who was hit and killed by a driver high on LSD in my community.

      • Yes thats a good point, oh wait its complete bull***t. The key word there is driver. Driver. As in Drunk driver, high driver, tweaking driver, tripping driver, etc. These would all be illegal because of the Driving part. Not because of the drugs alone. Just imagine if we legalized blowing bubbles and getting distracted. Holy s**t there'd be people blowing bubbles while driving everywhere! (I don't think this is funny, someone in my community died from a bubbling driver. What do you say to his family huh?)

    • agreed.

      and in terms of the response by chuck below. My brother is an alcoholic cocaine addict. It is hard on me without a doubt but his cocaine habit being illegal only makes things harder on him and me. Take the money spent on enforcing the drug laws and help my brother out with some rehab or better job opportunity.

    • It still wouldn't work completely. The government would tax them heavily and you'd still end up with a contraband market, just as with tobacco.

  8. Sandro Calvani is apparently working for UNODC in Bogota. UNODCs reports are well-known for their lack of methodological rigour and political bias. So do not expect much from that UN agency, perceived as corrupt and accused of protecting corrupt staff in several occasions.

  9. I strongly doubt that the future market will primarily leave room for the rapidly emerging MDMA products which Glenny describe, since we've heard these stories too often. The prestige and popularity associated with the products offered has always varied. Cocaine and heroin will eventually bounce back.

  10. drugs don't kill people, people kill people. if you take away the legal ramifications that come with being a drug dealer / producer,the violence will dissipate.

  11. We need to win the War on Drugs, but our governments and police are ham-stringed by political correctness. If we want to win this war: put every drug user into a walled off prison and monitor their blood daily. If people want to disobey the law and do drugs, then we as a society must stop them. First step is to monitor blood, hair, and urine of EVERY member of society. ANYONE caught doing illegal drugs will then lose their job, home, car, and bank accounts. If they continue to do drugs, put them in a special walled-off city like the Germans did. They had the right strategy and weren’t afraid to use it. We need to get serious if we want to return to how life was in the 50s. Anyone who is a hippie or “raver” should be segregated from the productive members of society.

    • You and James are such obvious trolls it makes me sick. Arguing with you would be like arguing with a dining room table.

    • Hey Hitler… No one likes you

    • You are being sarcastic, correct?

      If you're being serious, then sorry, you are just pathetic.

    • so your utopia is a world where everyone is monitored and regulated by the omniscient government who is inarguably incapable of error. Just a word of advice, if this is not a sarcastic post then u have serious mental problems. drug culture has existed for thousands of years and will exist until humans die out so what u are proposing is not only against human nature it is against human rights and people who implement such things will inevitably end up being executed by a mob of justified "hippie's"

    • Yea they have no drugs in countries where execution is the policy. I hope each of your kids becomes a junkie…maybe then you will gain compassion. Why is it that with legalization use goes down moron. Because no one bothers selling , the attraction or sexiness of use is gone , and addicts don’t try to hook people to support there own habit. More important
      Y the wastes money just might go to rehabilitation and prevention.
      Stupidity doesn’t work. Science does.
      Your ignorance is repugnant …why don’t we put ignorant fucks in that prison starting with you!

  12. There is definitely a subversive plot by the Canadian Government to gain control of the United States by affecting the minds of the citizenry, not to mention American leaders, through drug addiction. After all, it was likely Canadians who grew the pot that President Bill Clinton admitted to smoking. What's next? Obama on crystal meth? You Canadians are a devious and nasty piece of work.

    • lol

    • considering that all drug policies are indirectly written and regulated by the U.S. i find it hard to believe that canada in any way is trying to take over the us. With the introduction of bill (s-10) canada now has mandatory minimum sentences for drug convictions , similar to the us model, where the only thing accomplished is the limiting of freedom by increasing the incarceration rate and the cost to the tax payer while propagating immoral for profit private prisons where u stay until the private corporation that owns the prison say u can leave because since they are a private enterprise they do not have to held accountable because the rights of the corporations supersede the rights of an individual

  13. I have tried all, with the conviction that I could stop all.

    Meth is a killer. You cannot stop the draw of it, period, it makes you feet invulnerable. Even in LSD, they plant some meth to keep you going . I watched good people go down on it, and it saddens me.

    For the same amount of money as coke, you can stay high at least four times as long. I watched beautiful girls get sores from their meth usage, It's ugly. Meth feels like the fountain of youth, but will age you before your time. A very dangerous drug. I thought I had a control in my head that stopped me from using, meth was the only drug that tripped me up. Stay away. I have.

  14. lol. didn't barney frank just use that line at a town hall. sheesh. i saw it on cnn. it was soooooo funny.

  15. We don't need a bloody war on drugs. Stop telling me what to do with my body. Legalize it, regulate it, tax it.

    • Agreed. The war on drugs has never worked, and never will work. For some reason people still think you can win…

  16. canadians' opinions shouldn't enter into it because they are so woefully misinformed about drugs, drug users, drug policy, prohibition, legalization, and so on. They just don't have enough info, and it is a very complex issue, the media doesn't seem to get it either, and the cops lie and lie and lie about the lies and the politicians spew whatever crap gets the applause from the knuckle-dragging mouth-breathing voters.
    Quite frankly, I think Canadians deserve a bloody, Mexico-style drug war on their streets. They believe cops (even after we catch them lying again and again), and they stay home in droves on election day, and the ones that DO vote repeatedly elect prohibitionist hacks who insist that the cure for the problems caused by prohibition is more prohibition. Idiots reap as idiots sow.

    • Quite frankly, get over yourself american pig.

    • Why should Canadians opinons not matter on an article published by a Canadian magazine, on a Canadian website, that discusses Canadian legal matters. Go read CNN, or where it seems you get most of your info: wikipedia.

  17. No jobs , lost jobs ,poor pay ,no money , no work this cause drugs to work.

  18. "Canada have witnessed the growth in “smurfing” techniques—the laborious but effective process of purchasing legally available amounts of the precursors from pharmacies all over the country."

    REALLY? Because in the previous paragraph you said that there were, "factories" in Canada. Stop recycling the pathetic drug 'war' propaganda from thirty years ago.

  19. I'm a little confused where you obtained the information for your extremely bold conclusions seeing as you haven't cited anything except for one source for your findings.

    Generally to claim a country as "the new global drug lord" I would hope your research goes beyond one source. I've found the "World Drug Report 2009" released under the direction of Antonio Maria Costa, who also is the newly appointed Director of the United States Office of National Drug Control Policy. I find Canada often adopts the opinions and policies of American politicians and pundits far to readily seeing how they often have a conflict of interest.

    I'm just not too keen on anything that would incite a "War on Drugs" in Canada, seeing as in the USA it has clearly been counter productive and a severe waste of tax payer's money.

  20. In Canada, the judical system, as well as, the executve bodies are corrupt to its bone. So, what do you expect a nation free of drugs?

  21. Comment after comment… all spouting the selected propaganda that they were programmed with that supports their vindictive myopic views… shame on you all. Clearly from the view of an informed person, you are precisely the people responsible for all of this…. it is better to be silent and thought a fool, than to open your mouth and confirm it.

  22. They need to start tracking sales of precursors. Limit sales to only those licenced to purchase them, and then track them to the endpoints.

    • I totally agree Jackie. We should start by going after the precursors for marijuana. People who want to buy pots, garden soil, and fertilizer should need a registered license. Anyone who buys these precursors will have their gardens monitored weekly by police. Each type of plant and seed needs to be registered. Anything not on the approved government grow list will be burnt. If we do this we can finally exterminate all the plant species of life on earth we do not like: coca, cannabis, etc. Humans will be better off with the extinction of these forms of life. When all is said and done, we can finally erase these things from the history books, so our children will never learn about them. Anyone who opposes this, should of course be punished: preferably execution, but since our leaders are weak, we can just segregate them inside prisons so they are unable to reproduce.

      • LOL!!!!

  23. Boy, both Federal and provincial government better do something about it…..It is like Biker gangs and ethnic gangsters are taking over B.C…..Already, marijuanna and designer's drug is B.C.'s (maybe Canada's) biggest export to the rest of the world….it is really scary and creepy to actually see this happening in this country…

  24. Since B.C.'s provincial government is so easy on marijuanna producers, it is difficult to see how they can actually fix this situation…well….this is what happened when you go easy on marijuanna producers…you make gangs more powerful and they started investing into newer problems…

    • Actually the recent increase in gang violence in Vancouver isn't due to government laxity, but police success in removing some of Vancouver's local "kingpins". This leadership vacuum opened up a turf war.

  25. brilliant post. everyone is always blaming south america and afghanistan, it's right here at home, isn't it?

  26. Well its obvious that corruption exists both in our institutions and outside of them.Its a known fact that in Canada thwere are criminals existing within law enforcement institutions as well as outside of them and as far as I am concerned if Asian gangs are the vast majoroty of suppliers of illegal drugs as an ethnic race then perhaps stricter immigration policies are necessary.Its fair to say that whatever dominant culture brings in driugs from any country that they should be watched or prevented form entering the country.This is not to slight the good folks from these countries[like Asia who are a boon to our economy and good folks]its just a reality that has to be faced.It doesnt matter the country but if the stats say Asian then they should be watched if it says any other copuntry the same rule should apply no matter the country.Keep Canada clean and an example to the rest of the world as a nation of lawkeepers not lawbreakers.

    • LOL, political correctness fail. nice try, racist.

  27. hey its bout time we have get a staple crop,
    that were known around the world for.

  28. Canada is Colombia North – Thanks for the link.

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  38. there is alot of dumbe people who were educated on dont do drugs and still it happens some people have crack in there brains before they even touched the stuff