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Cameras looking both ways as surveillance of border increases

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The best B.C. bud is not sold on the Vancouver streets.

"The stuff on the B.C. streets is B grade pot," said Corporal Scott Rintoul, spokesperson with the RCMP drug enforcement branch in Vancouver.

"It could not be sold in the States."

It's the high quality stuff that is smuggled across the border to American markets, where buyers like to purchase high-grade product and dealers can make big American bucks.

And in return for B.C. pot, a variety of other narcotics like cocaine, meth amphetamines and heroin head back north.

This makes Canada's border on the west coast historically one of the most highly drug trafficked areas in the country.

And this is one of the reasons why the U.S. Border Patrol has installed 64 remote-controlled, high-tech cameras along a 70-kilometre stretch from Abbotsford to Surrey.

The $50-million (U.S.) camera system is fiber optic and has both daytime and nighttime infrared cameras.

They can pan the landscape or focus in on one particular area to enhance an image of a person or a car.

"Our challenge is to realize that organized crime groups utilize the border as a way to get stuff into both countries," said John Bates, U.S. Border Patrol deputy chief.

Because there is two-way traffic, the U.S and Canadian authorities have to work together closely, especially as organized crime units search for increasingly innovative ways to get past a more secure border.

As points of entry become more difficult for smugglers, they look for areas in between border checks to move stuff through illegally.

Bates shares some recent statistics to prove his point.

In January, U.S Border Patrol seized 78 pounds of cocaine that was left in a ditch that separates the two countries. He said they believe the cocaine was heading to a market on the northern side.

About five months ago border patrol had the largest seizure of ecstasy ever found on the northern border.

And the marijuana trading has really escalated in the past five years, he said.

"The demand is huge right now. (Marijuana is) worth its weight in gold," agreed Rintoul.

A lot of the marijuana, which comes into the States away from the border crossings, is carried over in backpacks.

In November, border patrol in the area seized 344 pounds of pot heading south and four days later seized another 311 pounds.

"Canadian marijuana is considered to be great high quality," said Bates.

"It has the highest THC content."

All the high-grade pot, which is sold south of the border, is grown indoors and can be grown anywhere.

"They may still call it B.C. pot but if you go to Manitoba, it's Manitoba bud," said Rintoul.

The marijuana from B.C. has developed a name and a reputation since it was first grown in the province.

In Whistler, while a significant amount of the population uses marijuana, very little is actually grown here.

"No one ever grows pot in their own home," said Staff Sergeant Hilton Haider with the Whistler RCMP.

"It's always in rental accommodations."

And in Whistler it's hard to rent.

"I think in the two years I've been here, we've had two grow operations," said Haider.

Most of the pot is grown in the Lower Mainland or on Vancouver Island, he said.

In hydroponics grow operations the plants can be stressed to the point where they give the highest THC yield. The U.S. demand is for this kind of stuff.

Rintoul estimates about 75 per cent of the pot which is homegrown in B.C. is shipped out of the province to other markets.

The U.S. is one of the best markets because smugglers can make good American dollars.

As soon as smugglers cross into Blaine, Washington, they can turn their product into U.S. funds.

If they head even further south down the interstate, the price increases and they can get up to $6,000 (U.S.) per pound in L.A.

While the money is good, many organized crime units also trade the pot for other illegal drugs and bring them back up north.

In this way, they do not leave a paper trail, said Rintoul, and are harder to catch.

The marijuana, which is sold to organized crime groups, is traded for drugs like cocaine and that then becomes crack cocaine on Canadian streets – an epidemic in places like Vancouver's east side, said Rintoul.

And then there is the meth epidemic, which is more harmful than cocaine. Meth is more addictive and the effects last twice as long and the odds of relapsing after treatment are much higher.

There were approximately 1,800 meth amphetamine labs in Washington State last year, compared to 30 in B.C.

This drug is becoming a huge problem in B.C. and the RCMP is worried about increasing production centres.

But the illegal trade across the border isn't just limited to drugs.

"Where do all the guns come from in this country?" questioned Rintoul.

Guns, like narcotics, can be used as payment in lieu of cash.

And there are also the illegal aliens, heading both ways.

Last week Border Patrol spotted three South Koreans walking down the railroad tracks in Blaine. They were subsequently arrested once they crossed into the U.S.

Illegal aliens usually cross the border on foot.

"For the most part they are guided in on trails," said Bates.

Bates said many illegal aliens use Canada as a stopping ground before heading south to their ultimate destination.

But they are also crossing in the other direction.

"The truth is, the number one refugee applicant in Canada is Mexican," said Bates.

Many of these people must be getting into Canada illegally through the U.S., he said.

Bates is hoping that the new camera system will put a dent in the flow of illegal traffic, both in people and goods, across the western end of the border.

If it does, the illegal trade will eventually start to move away from the west coast.

"If we do a good job in the Pacific Northwest it will start moving east and then heading south," said Bates.

"As we guard this border, we have to look both ways."

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