Jack Bacogus, a senior officer with the US Border Patrol in Lynden, guides his souped-up Ford Explorer along the southern of two parallel roads flanking the Canada-US border. Rows of raspberry bushes rustle in the gentle summer breeze. The odd dairy cow pauses from grazing to cast a languid glance at the rumbling truck. "It's extremely difficult to patrol," Bacogus sighs, pulling the Explorer into a field, where he aims the vehicle's infrared camera at a thicket of scrub brush. "We just can't be everywhere at once."
It is here, in the space between rural British Columbia and Washington State, that the feel-good political catchphrase "the longest undefended border on Earth" takes on a whole new meaning. The parallel roads—H Street in the US, and Zero Avenue in Canada—are only steps away from one another, separated by a shallow ditch marking the border.
For the US Border Patrol, the undefended ditch is a constant reminder of the Patrol's powerlessness against the multibillion-dollar British Columbia marijuana industry. Since the first of the year, Border Patrol agents in the Blaine/Lynden area have confiscated more than 400 pounds of marijuana—worth about $3 million—from smugglers trying to spirit it across the wide-open border. Patrol agent Dave Keller estimates that the combined confiscation of Patrol agents (who stop smugglers trying to sneak across unguarded stretches of border) and Customs agents (who catch smugglers trying to spirit marijuana through legitimate border crossings) is less than five percent of the total marijuana flow across the border at Blaine and Lynden. "Our border's not like the Mexican border," he says. "There are a thousand places you could come across, and no one would even know you were there."
Smugglers have tried every imaginable avenue, he adds. Customs officials at the Blaine border crossing recently stopped an elderly couple with 80 pounds of marijuana in their trunk. Blaine residents are often awakened in the middle of the night to find Border Patrol officers in their backyard, a smuggler pinned to the lawn, his backpack spilling cannabis into the flowerbed.
When stiffer sentences and increased law enforcement kicked in at the height of Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No," campaign, British Columbia had the most lenient drug laws in North America: meager $1500 fines—no jail time—for a grow operation worth $100,000. Throw in a humid 12-month growing season and a culture that has accepted and wholeheartedly embraced marijuana since the '60s, and you have the perfect environment for countercultural agribusiness.
"Marijuana growers just took a look at which place had the most lax drug enforcement laws, and it was BC," says Royal Canadian Mounted Police drug force agent Scott Ringtool. "In Vancouver, we're only half an hour's drive from the US border. That's great market access." It is indeed a great market: Conservative estimates rate the marijuana growth-and-export business as a $1 billion annual cash cow for the Canadian province. Others estimate it at closer to $4 billion.
A successful runner can charge approximately US$100 per pound for safe transport, with a single delivery across the border easily netting $2500. For a major operator, the runner's fee is chump change, as the high-grade BC product sells for more than $6000 per pound. The high prices are partly attributable to British Columbia marijuana's THC content (THC is the psychoactive agent producing the drug's high), which is nearly ten times as high as other Pacific Coast strains. "It's great dope—if you like dope," says the Border Patrol's Keller.
Mike Jones, who runs a customs brokerage in Blaine with his wife Kim, sees the steady influx as a community hazard. "It's definitely perceived as a threat to the public here," he says. "The drugs are out there—we see it everyday, somebody getting pulled over at customs, people getting busted on a border run." There's little question that most of the cannabis flowing south doesn't stop in Blaine, but is spirited swiftly to urban centers like Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, where consumers are more numerous and prices skyrocket. But the constant flow through Blaine is cause for concern, as the ubiquity of the drug is seen as dangerous to Blaine's children. "We're never going to keep it from coming across," says Jones, "but it's a matter of educating your kids so that they don't get it when it does come across."
The lure is a sharp one for kids and adults alike, though. Known smugglers run lucrative businesses out of Blaine, Lynden, Sumas, and Bellingham, and are seen around town cruising in expensive cars. One local smuggler, who goes only by "Lenny," spent an evening with Vancouver Sun reporter Stewart Bell, who watched with some fascination as Lenny, in his white BMW equipped with infrared night-vision goggles, received one of his runners from out of the border scrub brush and sped away.
The Border Patrol's Jack Bacogus says that most runners are youngsters looking for easy money, convinced that the penalties for running drugs will be light. "A lot of these runners we catch, they're just kids, maybe in college, just really young," he says. "They don't know any better. They don't know they could land in jail for a really long time."
Bacogus steers the Explorer to a grassy patch along the roadside. A gentle slope leads up to a mountain path, thick with trees higher up. The grass itself is streaked with the tire tracks of smugglers who come here to pick up goods from a transport agent at the path's end. Bouncing slowly down an overgrown side road, Bacogus points out another favorite route: From a parking lot on the Canadian side leads a wooded path straight into America, where smugglers make their drop, collect their payoff, and jump back to their side of the line.
But on a border where a drop can be made from one side of a ditch to the other, Bacogus says, covert paths are hardly necessary. The few border patrol agents stationed here can cover only small stretches of the border at once. One smuggler once told Bacogus that he preferred the open roads to the confines of secret pathways and overgrown passages "because, he said, he could tell where we are."
Bacogus tails a pickup truck with BC plates as it speeds away from the border, running a check on the license plate through his computer. Then he redirects the Explorer to a convenience store in nearby Sumas to pick up his first refreshment of the night—a Diet Coke. It's 11pm—he has five hours left in his shift.
Considering the volume of traffic across his beat, he reflects on how much slips by, undetected by his infrared cameras and in-ground motion sensors. "It's just like any type of international commerce: It'll take the path of least resistance," Bacogus says. "And let me tell you: This border doesn't resist much."