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Source: Playboy Magazine (US)
Address: 730 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10019
Copyright: 2005 Playboy Enterprises, Inc.
Author: Robert Sabbag (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Pubdate: July 2005 (Vol. 52 No. 7)
Note 1: In his books Snowblind and Smokescreen, Robert Sabbag takes readers inside the drug trade. Now, with High in the Canadian Rockies, he examines the booming flow of bud coming into the United States from British Columbia. His piece is the most contemporary take on this hyperprofitable industry -- no one to this point has gotten a look at the most secret and dangerous aspect of the business: smuggling the stuff into the U.S. "Clandestine meetings with people you don't know,"
says Sabbag, "taking them at their word and trusting you'll come away alive -- that makes a story like this as exciting to write as to read.
(Playbill, Page 1)
Note 2: Transporting 250 pounds of top-quality marijuana over the Canadian border in a helicopter during an orange alert seems like a scene from a comedy, but this is no Cheech and Chong movie. We gained access to the inner workings of a Canadian smuggling operation that nets a $20 million annual profit by providing Americans with triple-A vanity weed from British Columbia. The demand is for 2,000 to 3,000 pounds a day. BY ROBERT SABBAG (Contents, Page 3)
HIGH IN THE CANADIAN ROCKIES
Moving triple-A top-quality weed over the border under orange alert is not for the fainthearted, but it is richly rewarded. An inside look at Canada's connoisseur marijuana trade
* * *
It is a clear, unseasonably bright day in the mountains east of Vancouver. A sleep-deprived man in his mid-30s, dressed for business in a baseball cap, a nylon tracksuit and running shoes, is parked in a logged clearing in a remote expanse of British Columbia forest about 40 miles north of the U.S. border. He is of average height and weight, and nothing in the way he handles himself would be likely to draw special attention. Betraying few of the attributes one would associate with the holder of an executive position, he would look perfectly natural on any loading dock in the country. Stretched out behind the wheel of his pickup, with his seatback reclined and the visor of his cap pulled down over his sunglasses, he listens through the open window for anything that might break the silence.
"If everybody holds it together, it's pretty efficient," he says.
In holding together his end of things, this unassuming entrepreneur -- who has asked me to call him the Prez -- does a lot of driving. The truck is only three months old, and already he has put more than 20,000 miles on the clock scouting locations like this one, a stretch of Canadian wilderness identifiable most significantly not by its name but by its GPS coordinates.
"Waiting," he says, "is the hard part. The top of a mountain has a lot of eyes." The Prez is always searching for 'pockets' -- small depressions amid the surrounding peaks -- to minimize exposure to surveillance.
"It's not as easy as it used to be," he says of the business.
"Everything doubled after 9/11." Stepped-up government patrols in effect since the fall of 2001 have made people on both sides of the border more careful, but little more than prices have changed. "There's always gonna be a way to do it," he says. "There's a lot of border there that's unprotected."
And few are better than the Prez at exploiting that fact, if his payday is any indication. The father of a new baby boy, the Prez may put in more hours -- his workday typically runs for four a.m. to midnight -- but he earns the kind of money NHL starters are paid. Or the kind of money some of them are paid. At just under 100 grand -- $125,000 Canadian -- he takes home more in a good week than all but two of the 23 guys who skated for the 2003-2004 Vancouver Canucks.
"This is pretty much my life," he says of a job that comes with little downtime. I call myself a sleep opportunist."
The Prez is calculating the odds on stealing some rest -- it is even money that he might catch an hour or two later in the day -- when his glance shifts to the dashboard clock. He raises his seatback and unlatches the door.
"I hear it," he says, and steps out of the truck. It is what the Prez has been waiting to hear, and within seconds what he has heard is about all you can hear.
"You probably want to turn your back," he shouts as he circles the tailgate. "It's gonna kick up some dust."
And then everything gets military.
Rising suddenly out of the canyon, just behind the Prez, a helicopter springs up over the ridge, pilot and co-pilot visible through the cockpit glass, their faces obscured by tinted helmet shields. Behind the buffeting sound of its rotors, the aircraft swings in, noses down next to the pickup and then levels off, blowing up dirt as it goes through translation, the aerodynamic moment when a windstorm develops beneath the machine.
The helicopter, hovering, bringing with it the unmistakable, every-present smell of kerosene, touches down no more than a few feet from the truck, settling with impressive precision into what could be an adjacent parking space. You can shake hands across the distance. The wind -- but not the noise -- subsides when the skids hit the ground.
Whirling above the roof of the pickup, the rotors continue to whine as the pilot keeps the machine hot. The co-pilot jumps out of the cockpit, a roll of duct tape in hand.
While he crouches to mask the aircraft's registration number, the Prez hauls half a dozen black canvas hockey bags from the tail of the pickup and loads them aboard the chopper, hamming them through the rear door on the pilot's side.
The entire operation takes little more than a minute. In 30 minutes the cargo will be worth a lot more than it is now.
Circling the nose of the helicopter, the co-pilot climbs back on board.
The Pres forces the door shut on the payload and steps away from the craft. The pilot throttles up. As the rotors gain speed the pilot pulls up on the collective, and breaking free of the ground, the helicopter climbs out -- speeding away, hugging the treetops, moving as fast and as low as possible in the direction of the Cascades, their peaks visible in the distance, rising against the blue, cloudless sky over Washington.
Another load off to market.
"Now, I can go home," says the Prez, "and finish putting my son's crib together."
* * *
Aboard the helicopter bound for the border is 250 pounds of triple-A bud, the finest marijuana British Columbia has to offer -- by popular consensus, as fine as any weed in the world. A fraction of the two tons the Prez is shipping this week, the contraband is worth about half a million dollars wholesale once over the border and represents an even smaller fraction of Canada's multibillion-dollar industry in domestically cultivated connoisseur cannabis, as much as 85 percent of which is smoked in the United States.
The value of marijuana production in Canada -- estimated by a source no less sober and authoritative than Forbes magazine to be as high as $7 billion in British Columbia alone -- exceeds the nation's receipts from cattle, wheat and timber. Second only to oil and gas extraction in revenue, marijuana has emerged as "Canada's most valuable agricultural product," according to Forbes, which was moved to devote a cover story to the trade.
"Whole communities would go under if it were stamped out," says Richard Stratton, former editor in chief and publisher of High Times, a magazine that, if not so sober, is as authoritative as any on the economics of dope.
"We're better than FedEx," says one partner. "And there may be guys bigger than we are, but we haven't met them"
Much has been written recently about the rise of this illicit industry.
Government officials on both sides of the border have served as sources for numerous stories, and there has been no shortage of Canadian growers willing to share their expertise or provide guided tours of their operations. Equally forthcoming are various activists. Rarely, however, has a reader been treated to even a glimpse, let alone an in-depth look, at what is unquestionably the riskiest and most clandestine side of the business: smuggling the product into the U.S.
And never has even the most fully informed reader enjoyed access to the inner workings of an operation on the order of the one the Prez oversees.
"We're in the top five or the top three of the people doing this," says one of the partners to whom the Prez reports. "There may be guys bigger than we are, but we haven't met them."
As a marijuana "source country" by U.S. State Department standards -- which measure quantity, not quality -- Canada is just now hauling up the flag, providing no more than five percent of the marijuana smoked in the U.S.
"They grow more pot in California than in all of Canada," says Richard Cowan, editor and publisher of Marijuananews.com and a former national director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
But that says less about the Canadian industry than about the size of the U.S. market; comprising some 15 million smokers, it requires a healthy supply of imported weed to satisfy demand. Of that not provided by Canada, virtually all is shipped to the U.S. across the Mexican border.
"Everybody knows somebody who's doing it," says the Prez. "My dad wanted to start a grow."
One of the more striking features of Canada's rapidly expanding illegal industry is how highly diversified it is. Much of the pot is grown indoors, hydroponically, using 1,000 watt metal halide lights, hydroponic equipment and custom-designed nutrients and is produced not by criminal organizations as it is south of the border, where outdoor cultivation predominates -- but by a multitude of independent, otherwise law-abiding citizens. Highly decentralized, it differs from U.S.
production as well, displaying little of its vocational thrust, being more avocational, if you will. Many Canadian growers, unlike their U.S.
counterparts, hold other jobs.
"Everybody knows somebody who's doing it," says the Prez of the vast network of domestic grows stretching from British Columbia to the Maritimes. "My dad wanted to start a grow, throw up a couple of lights."
The Prez's uncle suffers from epilepsy, and his father had intended to cultivate marijuana for the stricken man's medical use. Medical marijuana is legal in Canada, but regulations governing its cultivation and purchase are constantly shifting. While a program is being implemented, appropriate mechanisms for getting quality pot to patients remains something of a moving target.
In addition to enacting procedures for its lawful therapeutic use, the Canadian government is on the verge of decriminalizing possession of small amounts of cannabis for recreational use. In light of such developments -- and in part just because Canadians tend to be laid-back about a lot of things -- pot possession on Canada currently occupies a kind of quasilegal no-man's-land when it comes to enforcing the prevailing statutes.
It is reasonable to conclude, considering the posture various states have adopted, that Canada looks a lot like what the U.S. might look like if Washington loosened up.
Experts on both sides of the border, and both sides of the issue, believe decriminalization in Canada is just a first step toward outright legalization. What the United States might be like if that were to happen inspires hysteria in the typical Washington bureaucrat.
"They're talking about legalization while Rome burns," says U.S. drug czar John Walters, threatening to slow movement of goods across the border if our nation's largest trading partner follows through on decriminalization. Such hysteria is infectious. The New York Times succumbed to it in March. In a front-page story, the newspaper, citing U.S. authorities, reported the murders of four Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers as "stark evidence" of an "increasingly violent"
marijuana industry north of the border. Within a week even the RCMP had backed away from that position, its commissioner admitting that he was too quick to link the murders to marijuana. The Times, reporting in the same article that the murder rate in British Columbia had "soared in the past two years" as a result of drug-gang killings, ran a correction five days later stating that the murder rate had in fact remained stable.
* * *
Shooting across Harrison Lake, the helicopter with the Prez's cargo aboard travels south about 50 feet off the ground, moving in and out of the canyons. The pilot -- "You can call me George," he says -- pushes 120 knots all the way to the border.
George, like everybody who admits to being part of the operation, seems to fall within an age range between mid-30s and mid-40s. Also like everybody else, he is happy to let you use his name as long as the name you use is not his real name -- which, like everybody else, he refuses to give you in the first place.
The weather is clear all the way to the drop. About 40 miles into the U.S., George closes on the GPS coordinates he has been given. Below him, alone in the emptiness of upper Washington state, a pickup is parked, its driver standing by the tailgate. Before putting the helicopter down, George executes a fly around, "clearing the area,"
circling the site to verify that it is not under surveillance. According to the Prez, the ones most at risk in the operation are the catchers, the personnel in the States on the receiving end of the pot. Part of the pilot's responsibility is to evacuate them in the event of trouble.
"If there's trouble you ditch the load," he says. "You leave the truck and get the guys back."
After assuring himself that the landing zone is secure, George puts the helicopter down next to the truck, keeping the machine hot while the catcher unloads the dope. "You never leave the controls," he says. The skids are on the ground for not even a minute. Lifting off as the truck's tailgate goes up, George circles again, double-checking the site before turning the machine north.
He drops to 50 feet off the tree line and speeds back to Canada.
* * *
"The money's over the border," says the Prez.
Canadian pot production far exceeds domestic demand, and the industry, like many others in Canada, thrives on U.S. dollars. It's probably safe to say that with about 10 times Canada's population, the United States is the largest market for just about any commodity produced in that country.
Washington's war on drugs severely inflates the value of marijuana in the United States. Canada, for example, unlike the U.S., does not support what amounts to a drug-enforcement air wing overflying the country to pick up your neighbor's infrared signature, a reading generated by the heat that emanates from the lights in his house.
Canada does not throw its citizens in jail on racketeering charges for pot possession. In the run-up to September 2001, when the U.S. was funding its antiterrorism budget at about $10 billion a year, it was spending $18 billion at the federal level and about that much at state and local levels -- call it $68,000 a minute -- on drug enforcement.
Vigorous enforcement and draconian penalties bring elevated risk and a higher cost of doing business. For these and other more elemental economic reasons -- the same ones that lure Hollywood to shoot movies in Canada -- a product that equals or exceeds the quality of anything grown in the U.S. doubles in value once it lands there. In many cases buying it makes more sense than growing it, and that accounts for what may be the newest development in the marketplace: many U.S. growers abandoning agriculture to broker B.C. bud instead.
Canadian cannabis competes not with other U.S. imports -- pot coming out of Mexico, or Mexishwag, as it is known, does not target the upper end of the market -- but with the domestically produced commodity. And in the end it does not really compete at all but is simply a supplement, serving a connoisseur market, the demands of which cannot be met by homegrown product alone.
When the Canadian pot arrives in the U.S. the supply-and-demand equation reverses itself -- if there is a saturation point south of the border, no one has yet found it. "The U.S. is a consuming nation, a hungry whore, an angry nation. We've got to get them their medicine," explains a wealthy British Columbia grower who quit his lucrative job as a salesman for a large agricultural company in his eagerness to ender the cannabis trade. "I couldn't wait to get my target commission so I could spark up a hundred-light show."
The U.S. market is unlimited, says the Prez, and servicing it is serious business. He and the people to whom he reports take pride in conducting their business as reliably and responsibly as they would any legitimate endeavor.
"We're better than FedEx," says one of those people, call him Gentleman Jim, a principal partner in the smuggling venture for which the Prez is operational chief. "We pick up anywhere in the lower mainland and deliver anywhere in the state of Washington."
As is customary at his level of participation in the trade, Gentleman Jim pays a lot more attention to the cut of his clothes than does a hands-on exec like the Prez. Impeccably groomed, dressed casually but neatly, he holds forth today from a pricey downtown Vancouver restaurant at which he appears to be a favored regular.
"We have two or three choppers running all the time," he says, "running three times a day, as many days as the weather's good. We never work weekends." One thing that makes weekends difficult is the presence in the mountains of hikers and campers -- witnesses overrunning the loading zone.
Gentleman Jim says his U.S. buyers are "people we've known for years, non-violent, peace-loving guys, low-profile, clean-cut." And they are fussy about the product. "They want all trips -- triple-A weed, vanity weed. You may have to look at 1,000 pounds to get 100 pounds of trips."
The term B.C. bud reflects nothing so much as a very successful exercise in branding. U.S. dealers apply it to just about everything shipped out of Canada. But while everything sold under the brand seems to meet a certain minimum standard -- all the high-end dope sold today is easily five times as potent as the commercial weed most veteran smokers were weaned on -- by no means is all the herb of comparable quality.
"Grade is everything to these guys," says Gentleman Jim of the people his operation supplies. "Smell, color, frost, bag size -- they want full pillows." A $6,000 machine is used to vacuum seal the packages. Care must be taken not to crush the buds or otherwise disturb the resin that clings like frost to the flowers. "You've got to go to five or six guys for one 250-pound run of triples," he says, insisting that among his customers "the demand is there for 2,000 to 3,000 pounds per day."
But the Canadian marijuana business has its own predictable, characteristically relaxed rhythm. "In September everybody gets busy growing indoors," explains J.R., another partner in the enterprise.
"Everybody wants money for Christmas," By December -- by which time the annual outdoor crop as also been harvested -- supplies of the product are ample and prices in Canada relatively low. With the onset of winter, prices drop further. "You can't get the marijuana across the mountains, "J.R. says. "You can't get ATVs through the snow. There are no boats in the water." The weather backs everything up. The Canadian market remains flooded with product, and prices stay down until April, when the frontier opens and the product goes through. On any night there will be 50 to 60 people crossing, carrying pot over the border, depleting the once ample supply. Summer brings a dearth of product.
High demand and elevated prices prevail, a condition exacerbated by what J.R. calls "the lazy Canadian male syndrome." In the summer, he says, everybody tends to kick back, uninspired until the need for Christmas money once again makes itself felt. "It's very dry until the first week of December, when the outdoor crop comes in a prices start dropping again."
* * *
The war on drugs is just one of the longer-lived of the wars Washington is currently waging that Canadians look on with some incredulity. And it is not the only war in the prosecution of which Washington accuses Canadians of giving aid and comfort to the enemy. While it drives the White House crazy, and maybe because it drives the White House crazy, the Canadian government's enlightened stance on a variety of social issues is a significant source of national pride to the country's citizens.
"They're legalizing pot, legalizing gay marriage," observes comedian Barry Weintraub. "It's like they're saying 'Come to Canada. We don't care what you put in your mouth.' "
Only in such an environment could a company like Advanced Nutrients flourish. "When we hit $100 million we're going public," says Michael Straumietis, who owns the Abbotsford, British Columbia company with partners Robert Higgins and Eugene Yordanov. Established in 1996, it manufactures fertilizer developed exclusively for use on "dichotomous short-day plants" -- and its founders acknowledge it does virtually all its business with the marijuana industry.
The company, whose ads guarantee "the biggest buds on the planet,"
showed gross sales of $20 million Canadian in 2003, the year it surpassed its nearest competitor to become the second-largest business of its kind in the world. (The leader is a Dutch firm.) Distributing to more than 700 hydroponics stores in Canada and the United States, as well as hundreds more around the world, Advanced Nutrients, which claims to support "the largest cannabis research program in the world," expects to double that figure by the end of the year. It employs more than 80 people and is projecting $100 million worth of business by the end of the decade. "We did $1.26 million in on week recently," says Higgins, maintaining that the company's plant-specific products, which sell for about three times the price of household fertilizers, are so popular with growers that "it's difficult to meet the demand."
In January 2004 Ontario police raided the largest, most sophisticated marijuana-growing operation ever busted in Canada. Conducted in a former Molson brewery in Barrie, a city of 115,000 northwest of Toronto, the 1,000-light grow consisted of 30,000 plants and covered more than 64,000 square feet, about half of the area of its building. Twenty-five beer vats had been converted into seedling-incubation chambers.
"There was a dormitory with 50 beds, kitchen facilities on a commercial scale, a big-screen TV with a bunch of recliners," says Barrie police chief Wayne Frechette. "It cost millions of dollars just to buy the building, than that much again in setup. This was not a ma-and-pa operation."
With a population three times that of British Columbia, Ontario is the largest market for marijuana in Canada. Estimates of its value run as high as $1 billion. But from the outset the Barrie operation was understood to be targeting the export market, according to Frechette, "just because of the magnitude of it."
Talking to Frechette, a 32-year veteran of the Ontario Provincial Police who was chief of detectives when he retired to take the Barrie job, provides insight into the thinking that currently pervades official Canada. Most remarkable, perhaps, is how that thinking contrasts with what one invariably hears from U.S. lawmen. "You'd have to go some distance here in Barrie to get arrested for possession," he says.
"You'd have to somehow draw attention to yourself. You'd have to be walking down the main street on Saturday night with a big doob and telling the whole world."
Marijuana charges, Frechette continues, are usually add-ons to charges for, say, fighting or drunkenness and are typically imposed at an officer's discretion when a suspect who is carrying has been a "pain in the ass" during his arrest. "But for us to suggest that we're going around doing active enforcement with respect to possession of marijuana
-- that just doesn't happen."
To Frechette the trend in Canada is clear. And while careful to add that he does not advocate it -- though he doesn't not appear to oppose it -- he is disinclined to deny the obvious. Of a continuum between the extremes of outright prohibition and blanket legalization, he says, "I can tell you without equivocation what direction the country is moving in, and that's toward legalization. Now, are we moving there in torturously slow steps? Yes. You can dress it up all you want, we're still moving in that direction. I wouldn't be out manning the barricades to legalize it, but I'm resigned to the fact. I think it's going to happen, so let's investigate the downside and get on with life."
Frechette's concerns are more practical and procedural than philosophical. He asks how legalization will address the issue of impaired driving, for example. And his easygoing acceptance of the inevitable is consistent with the official position of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.
But in no country on earth, not even in Canada, will the practical, the procedural or the philosophical outweigh political concerns. Some Canadian legislators oppose any step toward legalization, and their panic is predictable. "The first effect it will have," says Frechette, though he suspects it will be only temporary, "is a very deep chilling in Canada-U.S. relations."
Police initially exploited the Barrie bust to support a dying bureaucratic and political stance at the federal level in Canada -- a stance encouraged by those same panicked legislators -- which holds that organized crime controls the marijuana industry. Alleging that as many of 85 percent of Canadians involved in growing cannabis are members of criminal syndicates, police reports cite Asian groups (chiefly
Vietnamese) and outlaw motorcycle gangs as the major players.
Indeed, both are involved in the trade. And the Vietnamese grows, generating a commercial product of a quality connoisseurs look down on, tend to be disproportionally large. Equally disproportionate is the number of arrests they generate, considering the small size of the Vietnamese community.
Because criminal syndicates make for easier targets, drawing police scrutiny for a variety of felonies, and because they cultivate on a major commercial scale, such groups tend to drive headlines and skew statistics.
"Under the present law it's a very attractive commodity for organize crime to get into," says Frechette. What did Prohibition do other than make the Mob tremendously wealthy?"
In Canada, then, pot may be a significant source of revenue to organized crime, but given the scope of the industry as currently understood, organized crime does not appear to be a significant source of pot.
"No more than 10 percent of growers are affiliated with organized crime," says Robert "Rosie" Rowbotham, former managing editor of High Times in Canada, who covered the Barrie bust when he was a producer for the CBC national radio network. The alleged masterminds behind the Barrie operation were not gang-affiliated. At the same time, Rowbotham reported, neither was their operation typical of what he estimates to be the 15,000 grows in Ontario.
* * *
"Nobody grows with this much attention on a large scale," says a Toronto
aficionado introduced as Jeff.
A soft-spoken, short-haired, tattooed man of 31, Jeff would make a fine
candidate for what one seed breeder in British Columbia calls Bud
Fondlers Anonymous: "They're all about the grass," the breeder explains.
Jeff's apartment in Toronto's East End, most of which is given over to
the 200 plants he cultivates -- 100 of which are flowering at any one
time -- is akin to a research facility. Everything is automated and set
on timers: temperature and humidity controls, pH and electrical-current
meters and exhaust fans using the latest in activated charcoal
filtration technology. Every bit of horticultural data is recorded,
collected in detail and logged in ring binders. His setup, a typical
"small urban grow" he works with a partner, exemplifies those Canadian
"microbudderies" dedicated less to commerce than to advancing the
quality of a plant that Jeff and growers like him identify as noble,
their devotion to its properties being almost religious.
"Sometimes I'll bring a lawn chair in and watch them grow," he says.
"You can see them grow. You turn the fans off. They're so competitive;
you'll see a leaf just jump for space. They grow an inch a day."
Paying $80 a liter for food -- he has a closet full of nutrients -- and
using what is known as the sea-of-green method, in which a plant yields
a single flower, Jeff gets "about an ounce of bone-dry quality bud" per
plant, achieving a level of 20 percent THC, marijuana's psychoactive
component. With "three lights flowering and two lights veg," he
averages a pound and a half per light each harvest cycle, and he gets
six harvests a year.
"We're more concerned with quality than yield," he says, "but our yields
are pretty good. If I didn't deal with just the compassion center or
friends...? It goes for $30 to $45 for three and a half grams. That's a
very cheap price. You can go buy Vietnamese garbage for the same amount."
To supply the Toronto Compassion Center with a portion of the pot
necessary to service it's membership of 1,340 medical users, Jeff
charges $2,200 a pound for a share of what he harvests, a product he can
sell to others for $3,200 to $4,000 a pound.
"I supply the club with as much as I can. I would like to sell them
more," he says, "but my harvest is not that big. It keeps me from
having to work full-time at another position and allows me to do what I
want, but I still need to supplement my income a little bit."
* * *
"A large chunk of what goes across," says Gentleman Jim, who knows
because he moves it across, "comes from people running fewer than 20
lights." People across the nation, from sea to shining sea: Cultivation
pays the rent for growers from Vancouver Island to the Gulf of St.
Lawrence -- an estimated 50,000 are considered commercial growers -- and
it is making many citizens rich. But the real payoff, as always in the
contraband business, is in transportation. And where quality drives the
turnover drives the bottom line.
"He's got to be in Seattle," Gentleman Jim says of the typical U.S.
buyer. "We'd rather take $2,700 to $2,900 in Seattle than $3,200, maybe
$3,600 in L.A. It goes for $4,000 a pound wholesale in Vegas, $4,500
in Atlanta." All it takes, he says, is two good U.S. buyers to make a
smuggler rich. Right now his operation services four. Nor does the
partnership limit itself to the product it buys and sells. "We also
carry other people's stuff. We charge them $450 to $550 per unit for
transportation. There are 10 to 12 suppliers up here using the service."
And very little interrupts the efficient conduct of business. "We run
under orange alert," says Gentleman Jim, referring to the second-highest
level of Homeland Security's terrorist-threat conditions. "Orange won't
stop us. Only red alert will ground our flights." Red alert grounds
everything but NORAD.
"I can't say my guy went drinking last night and couldn't make the
delivery," observes the Prez. "That's not an excuse. Flying into a
mountain is an excuse." Flying into a mountain is a good excuse.
Lifting off on a sunny day in Vancouver, a pilot may encounter a
blizzard anywhere en route. "The mountains have their own weather," the
Prez likes to say, but he adds that even on a good day a pilot pushes
the odds. "On a helicopter at any one time there 20,000 pieces trying
to blow themselves apart."
It's not for the faint of heart," says J.R. "With the wind through the
canyons blowing 80 miles an hour, it's like hitting a while. Sometimes
the turbulence is so bad it pops the doors on the machine."
Flying in zero-zero weather -- ceiling zero, no visibility -- and
employing the map-of-the-earth technique by which combat pilots maneuver
are skills shared by all who fly for the organization. These are
specialized techniques you don't pick up in flight school. It's not as
though they come with the license.
"We have a pilot training program," says Jim. It is not an
apprenticeship but a journeyman's course, and what one learns is very
specific: "Not to fly, but to fly a new way. There's an art to it, " he
"You throw the rule book away. No safety margin," says George, who has
been flying for five years and doing what he calls "this kind of flying"
for most of that time. "I do it for the thrill as much as anything," he
Anyone in the smuggling business will tell you that pilots seem to take
naturally to the work, probably because thy are risk takers to begin
with. But George insists his balls are no bigger than anyone else in
the game. "I just brought my share to the table," he says.
Flying the new way, George has fought 70-knot winds, run into blizzards
and hit 300-foor fog banks coming out of the mountains. He remembers
one trip during which, hung up by the weather, he found himself perched
on a snowbank, about to drop tail-first down the side of a cliff. His
only option was -- immediately and almost suicidally -- to go vertical.
Nose down, with the helicopter's rotors skimming the snow, he managed
to avert disaster, save himself and his co-pilot -- not to mention the
load -- and, if that were not miracle enough, make it to the drop site.
But he arrived late.
"The ground guy was gone," he says."
Circling the area, George spotted the ground guy's truck, "chased him
down the highway" and made the delivery.
Asked if he has ever encountered one of the helicopters that routinely
fly the border on antidrug and counterterrorism patrols, George says no.
Asked what he thinks would happen if a chase were to ensue, he
responds with a shrug that can best be described as cavalier.
"If you fuel up last, you win."
* * *
"Seattle is the centre of the universe," explains T., a Virginia
supplier of B.C. bud. "The distribution cells are set up there."
As often as not, he says, a 250-pound shipment out of Canada will be
destined for a single buyer. The load will be delivered from the drop
site to an inconspicuous house in suburban Seattle that does not stand
out from the others around it; it might be one of two or three houses a
buyer uses. Things come and go from this first location. A second
house, in the woods or mountains, might be used to deal with the money
-- which professionals keep separate from the product. Both houses are
removed from the buyer's equally inconspicuous home, where he and his
"They don't live like rock stars," says T. "The new look is
all-natural, all-cotton, hemp, a real vegan lifestyle. No guns." Some
players no doubt bury their money. More typical is the distributor who
is also proprietor of some small entrepreneurial company, a boutique
operation in which he can invest the cash and through which he can
From the Seattle suburbs, the pot travels to other parts of the country
in shipments of various sizes though a series of increasingly smaller
distributors, each of whom adds $1,000 a pound to the price. Before
September 2001 they would just hop on planes out of Seattle, carrying
the pot in suitcases, headed for places like Aspen, Hawaii and Alaska.
"It's going straight to Hawaii," says T. "It's that much cheaper.
Tourists think they're buying Maui wowee -- they're buying B.C. bud. In
Alaska they think it's Matanuska."
Now, with stepped-up airport security, rather than travel in 30-pound
shipments divided among suitcases, pot is more likely to leave Seattle
in five-pound packages via Federal Express or mail. The money is
shipped back to the city the same way.
"Everybody's making a grand on a pound," says T. "Housewives, CPAs,
lawyers, white-collar workers, people with nine-to-five jobs moving a
couple of pounds a week. It's the new white lightning."
Sold by the ounce for $360 to $400, it is worth more than its weight in
* * *
When asked how much the operation takes in, Gentleman Jim responds,
"$400,000 to $600,000."
Which does not quite answer the question.
"Canadian," he adds.
An average of half a million dollars Canadian. So around $400,000 U.S.
There it is.
Call it $20 million U.S. a year. One operation.
At wholesale prices in Seattle, shipment of two tons a week generates
more than half a billion dollars in annual export revenue.
* * *
It is a clear, unseasonably bright day on a golf course in
Massachusetts. Two men, 10 years apart in age, are approaching the
"Why don't we do that thing first," the younger man, who is in his late
40's, says after glancing down the fairway and finding nothing in the
way of a witness.
The other produces a small pipe and a few grams of B.C. bud, which has
recently arrived from Canada. It was delivered with a written warning
from the U.S. supplier: "Don't roll this." Apparently the stuff is just
too powerful to be smoked in the quantity required by a joint. The
herb's provenance is a mystery; it could have been grown in any one of
those 50,000 commercial operations north of the border. It cost the
U.S. supplier $3,600 a pound.
The pipe is lit, and each man takes a couple of hits. The most
discernible effect on them will be evident later: The golf game of each
"You've been writing about this stuff for years," one of them is saying
to me as if I need reminding. Bootleggers and other troublemakers -- I
have a reputation for this kind of thing. "And you don't even smoke the
shit. What did those guys in Vancouver think?"
"Telling people I don't smoke dope," I reply, "is like asking them to
believe that Damon Runyon didn't drink or hang out at the track. But
they get over it after a while."
And then as the more invisible effects of the weed take effect, the two
men look at me with what seems to be the same question on their mind.
One of them gives it voice, and the question, as effectively as
anything, explicates B.C. bud's place in the overall, if ever-shifting,
scheme of things.
"Do you think if maybe you gave them a call...?"
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