Traffic out of control

Observations on Canada and drug trafficking

Forget igloos and bobsleds. Not-so-squeaky-clean Canada has a new label to answer to: the United Nations World Drug Report 2009 shows how the country is now a major global trafficking hub for synthetic drugs such as Ecstasy and methamphetamine.

While it may come as a surprise to international observers, for local law enforcers, who have uncovered more clandestine drug labs than the country’s market can hold, the label seems to fit the United States’ northern neighbour perfectly. Drug production has become such a problem that it is now a top tactical priority for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

In 2003, the government tried to stop the diversion of “precursor” chemicals, such as ephedrine, from the legitimate chemical industry to illicit drug producers. By that time it was too late, says Sergeant Brent Hill, who leads the chemical diversion unit for the RCMP’s division in Ontario, Canada’s most populated province.

“There’s no one little neighbourhood that’s responsible for the drug trafficking stage here,” Hill says. “They’re everywhere.”

In 2007, the UN reports, 12 per cent of “Ecstasy-group substances” seized globally were found in Canada, the world’s fourth-largest haul. It has become the “primary source” of those drugs for North American markets and increasingly serves other regions, too.

In recent years, synthetic drugs have swept through Canada, leaving a trail of addicts in their wake. Meth produced by Asian crime syndicates and outlaw motorcycle gangs is exported to the US, but also Australia, where Canadian meth accounts for 83 per cent of their seized imports, and Japan (62 per cent).

“Asian gangs in Canada as well as in south-east Asia are obviously working together,” says Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. This “is just part of the logic of supply and demand – where the demand is and where the least trafficking risks are”.

Last October, police in Toronto announced they had dismantled an international crime network responsible for more than CA$100m (£52m) worth of drugs being shipped from the Toronto area. In April 2008, police raided what was believed to be the biggest meth operation ever in the Greater Toronto area, then uncovered a large Ecstasy lab in the same industrial complex. Statistics show that every 15 days for the past six months, Ontario officials have been called to fires involving marijuana-growing operations (grow-ops) or drug labs.

Before 2003, Europe was the leading source for Ecstasy in the US. That trade was dismantled, but US and Canadian intelligence reports indicate that Canada-based drug-trafficking organisations are attempting to fill the supply void.

“These drugs are being packed up in bulk for export,” Hill says. “We do not have the base, the consumer base, to even remotely think about consuming the illicit drugs that are being produced in this country.” Often considered “safe” by outsiders, Canada is not immune to the problems any drug-laden country faces: guns, violence and human trafficking.

When Hill started drug enforcement in 1990, Canada was not a major source country for drugs. “We used to look for hard drugs in other countries,” he says. “I find it quite disturbing and absolutely unacceptable that Canada is now a source country for criminal enterprises operating on an international stage.”

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