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Michigan border sees 1,700% increase in drug seizures amid pandemic

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials say they’ve had an unprecedented year with a 1,700% increase in marijuana seizures and 200% increase in seized firearms during the pandemic.

The seizures were conducted by the Detroit Field Office, which oversees the Ambassador Bridge, Detroit Windsor Tunnel, the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron, the International Bridge in Sault Ste. Marie and the Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

Between Oct. 1, 2019, through Sept. 30, drug enforcement operations in Michigan’s five ports netted more than 9,000 pounds of marijuana, 211 pounds of cocaine, more than 1.5 pounds of methamphetamines, and 15 pounds of fentanyl, which has the potential to kill more than 3 million people, officials announced Tuesday.

An assortment of drugs that was confiscated at the border.

A total of 203 firearms were seized, a 227% increase from last year, along with 5,334 rounds of ammunition. Anything not included in a prosecution investigation will be destroyed, said Christopher Perry, director of field operations for CBP Detroit.

"The increased demand, with the border of being close to non-essential travel making it much more difficult for the smuggling organizations to move their that their products," Perry said. "They're becoming more desperate."

Undeclared currency seized totaled $4.6 million, which will be returned to the U.S. Treasury's general fund.

A total of 225 people were arrested during the fiscal year, charged with smuggling narcotics or people, firearm violations and fraud. That is down from 549 arrests made in the previous year when the border was open.

If not for COVID travel restrictions, Perry believes the department would have surpassed the number of weapons and arrests of previous years.

Bags of cocaine confiscated at the border.

Additionally, agriculture specialists intercepted 2,010 pests that could have caused a detrimental effect on the American agriculture industry, Perry said. Items include a khapra beetle, a destructive pest of grain products and seeds. Uniquely, Detroit intercepts two-thirds of all illicit biological materials entering the U.S. through carry-ons at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

"Some of these things are microscopic," he said. "Our specialists are scientifically trained to detect things that if they were to enter the U.S. or they were able to propagate themselves, could do tremendous damage and spread diseases to humans or animals."

After decades, nothing surprises Perry, but he noted the border protection seized uncommon items this year such as prehistoric Egyptian mummy linens and worked to prevent products from entering that use Chinese-forced labor.

It's all while non-essential passenger travel has decreased more than 90%, but trade numbers remain almost unchanged, Perry said.

"Detection starts overseas where we're screening large amounts of data or information for things that may be of interest with our Canadian partners," he said.

Marijuana jumps 1,726%

This is the 150 pounds of marijuana that was confiscated from a nurse at the border.

This fiscal year, 9,059 pounds of marijuana was seized, an increase of 1,726% from last year. It's a trend, Perry anticipates, will continue.

While Detroit is seizing between 500-600 pounds of narcotics, northern areas including Buffalo and Boston are seizing upward of 10,000 pounds, Perry said.

"What we're seeing with our quantities and our sizes at our northern borders are what we saw 20 years ago," said Perry, who has worked with the department for 30 years. "I didn't expect it this year and don't anticipate it slowing down."

Not included in the statistics, officers say on Monday night, 1 ton of marijuana was seized on its way into Michigan. No further details could be released during the investigation.

Among those arrested was a nurse, who was deemed essential, and caught with 150 pounds of marijuana in her car attempting to enter the United States during COVID-19 travel restrictions.

It's primarily coming in from Canada, which legalized marijuana in 2018, in a time when supply can't meet the demand in the U.S., Perry said. After it enters the border, it's being traded for cocaine and vice versa, he told The Detroit News.

"Most of the narcotics are found in commercial vehicles, which haven't slowed during COVID. Our focus is on how we leverage advanced technology to try to find a needle in a haystack while keeping our agents safe," he said.

Earlier this month, more than a half-ton of marijuana hidden in a trash hauler at the Blue Water Bridge.

Arriving at a primary inspection booth, the driver told CBP officers he was transporting municipal trash headed for a landfill in New Boston. When he was referred for a secondary examination, "officers uncovered over 1,000 pounds of marijuana concealed in trash bags in the rear of the truck."

"What makes Michigan special is we have an international border city that is in line from Montreal to Toronto and the highway system that leads to the border," he said. "And then when you get to the U.S., Michigan's highway routes facilitate the movement of narcotics throughout the U.S."

On Monday, Detroit leaders unveiled proposed regulations for the operation of recreational marijuana shops, with controversial provisions to give residents priority.

The plan guarantees no less than half of all licenses awarded will go to legacy residents. City leaders noted it was crafted to ensure residents disproportionately affected by the nation’s failed “War on Drugs” will have an equitable opportunity to participate in an industry that's estimated to yield $3 billion in annual sales.

Until marijuana is legalized nationally, officials will remain steadfast to protect, Perry said.

"We have to be vigilant," he said. "Even though marijuana may be legal recreationally in many places, but what you see here, this is organized crime and trafficking organizations trying to cause tremendous damage to our country."


Twitter: @SarahRahal_