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Marijuana seizures at the Michigan-Canada border are booming. Here’s why.
They hit the throttle and sped through pitch-black water. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers spotted a vessel of some sort in the distance, near the uninhabited Celeron Island in the Detroit River at 2:35 a.m., June 5, 2020.
They cut through the international waterway that separates Michigan and Ontario, Canada and noticed something else near the watercraft: two floating bundles attached to an unconscious man by a tow strap.
According to federal court filings, they later learned the man is Glen R. Mousseau of Canada. He was wearing a wetsuit, and his “vessel” was no ordinary boat. It was a Seabob, a personal submarine, similar to the underwater jet fictional special agent James Bond used in the 1965 movie “Thunderball.”
Except, Mousseau wasn’t attempting espionage. He was trying to smuggle 265 pounds of Canadian marijuana into the U.S., Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent Christopher A. Leonard wrote in charging documents filed later the same day. Mousseau is now serving a nearly six-year federal prison sentence.
Mousseau’s arrest is one of several illustrating the increasingly sophisticated lengths Canadian smugglers are going to in order to get marijuana into the U.S., where there is a state-to-state patchwork of marijuana laws ranging from full legalization to total prohibition, creating unique economics and profit motives.
“It’s about profit,” Detroit-based Homeland Security Investigations Assistant Special Agent in Charge Matthew Stentz said.
The factors that influence those profits are supply and demand, directly impacted by legalization and prohibition.
“I think in Canada right now there is just so much of it and there’s profit to be had in the United States ... especially with the high-grade, potent stuff that’s being grown within the greenhouses,” Stentz said. “That is still very desirable in states where it’s not necessarily legal.
“It’s fascinating that you can sit there and you look into parts of rural Ontario from Michigan, you can look across the water, whether it’s Lake St. Clair or the Detroit River, you can see in the middle of the night the glow of these greenhouses that are basically just mass producing this stuff on a daily basis.”
Market dynamics steer smugglers to Michigan, and ‘submersible watercraft’
Customs and Border Protection officials this year have seized nearly 15,000 pounds of marijuana at the Michigan border, predominantly in Detroit. That’s seven times as much as the 2,189 pounds seized in 2018. Homeland Security Operations, the federal law enforcement arm that investigates smuggling, has seen its seizures boom at other northern borders, including Buffalo. There were 1,071 pounds seized there in 2016, versus 41,000 in fiscal year 2021.
Conversely, marijuana seizures at the southern border, marijuana’s traditional route into the U.S., has experienced a steep decline. Customs officials seized nearly 723,000 pounds of marijuana at its southern checkpoints in 2016, compared to about 200,000 this year, a 72% decrease.
In Detroit, the size of the marijuana shipments are growing, while the frequency of seizures are on the decline. According to CBP statistics, there were 1,337 “seizure events” in 2019, versus about 700 in the last year.
Most of the Canadian-smuggled marijuana intercepted in Detroit or at the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron isn’t destined for Michigan, Stentz said. It’s usually headed for states where demand -- and prices -- are higher. With Michigan’s large legal market, a caregiver system and the ability for people to legally grow recreational-use marijuana at home, Canadian smugglers can make more money in states where marijuana remains illegal, places like Tennessee, the Carolinas and Georgia.
“With Michigan being a recreationally legal state, anyone bringing drugs from Canada will probably be best served to sell those drugs in a state where they can maximize their profit,” said DEA Detroit Field Division spokesperson Brian McNeal. “Logic would suggest that not all, if any of those drugs are destined for the state of Michigan.”
Mousseau, the man found unconscious with marijuana in the Detroit River, was previously arrested in May 2020 following a traffic stop in St. Clair County’s China Township, about 30 miles south of the international Blue Water Bridge. He was driving a U-Haul with a package containing $97,000 in cash, according to the federal complaint.
Police arrested Mousseau and he admitted to operating an organization that smuggles drugs and money back and forth across the border. At the time, he was trying to get cash back to Canada.
“Mousseau stated that he provides GPS coordinates to an individual in Canada, who traverses the river using a submersible watercraft,” the federal complaint said. “Mousseau would then send the contraband or currency and his associate back across the river.
“Mousseau also admitted that he was the owner of submersible watercraft seized by Border Patrol agents” in April 2020 from the Zug Island shoreline, also located in the Detroit River.
Police released Mousseau to a Comfort Inn for the night, where he was supposed to stay before turning himself in the following day, but he fled and wouldn’t be seen again by police until he turned up unconscious in the Detroit River.
In addition to mini-submarines, smugglers are also using more complex schemes to sneak marijuana over the border by way of bridges and tunnels.
Long-haul trucker Tasbir Singh, 32, was tricked into smuggling nearly 2,270 pounds of marijuana worth $3.6 million from a nondescript warehouse in North York, Ontario, Canada, located about an hour north of Toronto, into the U.S. by way of Detroit, where Singh was arrested by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers July 7.
Singh owns his truck, which he contracted to a trucking company that booked the load with a freight broker, who in turn booked the load from a shipper. Singh is at least three degrees separated from whoever snuck marijuana into the freight.
Singh picked up a sealed trailer with paperwork that said he was hauling compression springs to Ohio. When Border Patrol X-rayed his trailer in Detroit, they noticed an “anomaly,” pulled Singh to the side, searched the freight he never laid eyes on and found marijuana hidden within.
“What I can say is the people who committed this fraud were experts,” said attorney Ellen Michaels, who defended Singh and eventually convinced prosecutors to dismiss the felony charges they filed against him.
Michaels, as well as Singh’s employer, maintain he was duped into becoming an unwitting accomplice in the smuggling operation.
The view of the Ambassador Bridge from Riverside Park on Thursday Sept. 16, 2021 in Detroit. Nicole Hester/ MLIVE.com
Another smuggling attempt that ended with a seizure at the Detroit border was more blatant, but equally sneaky, according to federal authorities.
Investigators say 50-year-old Terri L. Maxwell, a registered Canadian nurse, was caught smuggling 154 pounds while trying to enter the state via the Ambassador Bridge at the Detroit border about 9 a.m., April 22, 2020.
At the time, coronavirus pandemic restrictions limited border crossing to first-responders and health care workers. Maxwell, dressed in scrubs and a lab coat with a Henry Ford Medical Center employee badge, used her employment as a cover for her smuggling activity, CBP officers said in the federal complaint.
While randomly checking Maxwell’s trunk, officers smelled marijuana and discovered 143 bags of vacuum-sealed cannabis.
“She was basically using her position as a nurse and telling everyone, ‘Oh, I’m on my way to work,’ when she was actually smuggling marijuana,” Stentz said.
According to Stentz, Maxwell was working as a “mule,” solely as a transporter paid by the carload she delivered across the border.
Maxwell pleaded not guilty and her case is pending. Her attorney, Marshall E. Goldberg, declined comment. According to federal court records, Maxwell has filed a motion requesting a competency evaluation before the case proceeds. A hearing on that motion is set for Nov. 17 in Detroit’s federal courthouse.
Law enforcement authorities look at smuggling sort of like Newton’s Third Law: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. When a smuggled shipment reaches its destination, it’s likely to prompt another illegal smuggling shipment, whether it be money, drugs or guns.
Stentz said federal agents work with Canadian officials to “really attack the bi-directional smuggling, criminal organizations that are not just moving the marijuana, but the cocaine, the methamphetamine and the bulk cash, because it’s all related.”
“Your marijuana that’s coming in, basically, that driver might have to pick up some cash to take it back to the organization, or they might pick up cocaine and take it back,” he said.
When border agents stop someone like Singh or Maxwell, those defendants aren’t the real target.
“The goal is basically to link them to the larger criminal networks,” Stentz said.
The good stuff
Canada legalized marijuana nationally in 2018. Market saturation, both legal and black market, followed.
“When marijuana became legal in Canada ... it took about 18 months before we started seeing large commercial loads come through the border,” Stentz said. “What’s interesting: 15 to 20 years ago, a large marijuana load from the border would have been 45 to 50 keys (kilograms). Now you’ve seen from the press releases you’re seeing 1,500 keys (kilograms).”
That’s an increase from about 100 pounds to thousands.
Stentz said the same sort of illicit domestic sales occurred when states like Colorado legalized marijuana.
“It just kind of saturated the market in Colorado, so you had people trying to unload it and make profit from it,” Stents said. “I guess that’s what we’re seeing internationally with the Canadian-sourced marijuana, except at a macro level.”
Another factor driving Canadian-smuggled marijuana to the U.S. is the sophistication of smokers, Stentz said. They’re looking for better quality, more potent product, qualities marijuana from Mexico and South America aren’t traditionally known for.
But that could change as the Mexican government moves toward legalization.
What happens following potential legalization in Mexico “is going to be interesting,” Stentz said. “Now all of the sudden you’ve got good quality production in Canada and equal quality grows going on south of the Rio Grande, then it’s going basically back to price points. Can Canadians sell their illicit marijuana cheaper than their Mexican counterparts?”
George Smitherman, President and CEO Cannabis Council of Canada, said there is so much production capacity among Canada’s legal marijuana market that producers have had to drop prices in order to compete with black-market sellers.
The only way governments will ever compete with the black market is through legalization, he said.
“One of the stronger rationales for legalization, especially if you’re coming from a conservative starting point, is that on day one, you begin restricting the business opportunities of the criminal element,” he said. “Legalization is regulation. That means bringing lawfulness to an area that was otherwise not experiencing that.”
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