At midmorning one day late last year, a man and woman from Montreal driving a minivan pulled up to the border crossing at Highgate Springs. They were headed to Long Island for vacation, they said, but the agent ordered them to pull over for additional inspection.
That's when a drug-sniffing dog found 200,000 tablets of the party drug Ecstasy hidden under the minivan's rear seat, court documents say.
The Nov. 26 Ecstasy seizure, valued at between $4 million and $6 million depending on where the tablets are sold, was the largest ground seizure ever in New England. But it was only the latest of a number of multimillion-dollar Ecstasy seizures in Vermont and New York in recent months. Since then there have been no large seizures in Vermont or upstate New York.
The suspect in one seizure at the U.S. Canadian border crossing in the town of Alburgh told investigators he had made up to 25 trips between Canada and New York City in the last few years before he was caught in October.
Even though most Ecstasy production in Canada seems to be centered in western provinces, smugglers now appear to be focusing their efforts to reach American markets in the U.S.-Canadian border area on the New York and Vermont sides of Lake Champlain.
"As they ratchet up enforcement out west you see it come east," said Vermont U.S. Attorney Tom Anderson. "It's of tremendous concern seeing these quantities coming across our border."
The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy said last year that between 2003 and 2006 the amount of Ecstasy seized in the 10 Canadian border states went up almost 10 times. And the office warned that in many cases the Canadian drug is being laced with methamphetamine, both to make it cheaper to produce and to make it more addictive as a way to keep customers coming back.
"Canada is the major supplier of MDMA in the United States," said Barbara Wetherell, a spokeswoman for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington. She was using the chemical abbreviation for the synthetic drug more commonly known as Ecstasy.
When the White House issued its release, officials with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police disputed some of the details, but they acknowledged the issue.
"Canada has become a source country for Ecstasy, and the RCMP is working closely with other Canadian law enforcement agencies and American agencies to stem the flow into the U.S.," said RCMP spokesman Greg Cox, from the agency's national headquarters in Ottawa. "As part of the Canadian government's National Anti-Drug Strategy, the RCMP is continuing to crack down on gangs and combat illicit drug production."
Antonio Nicaso of Toronto, an author and expert in Canadian organized crime, said Canada was among the world's top three producers of Ecstasy, (the other two are Belgium and the Netherlands) which is smuggled all over the world, but the principal market for Canadian producers is the United States.
"Canada is for Ecstasy what Colombia is for cocaine," Nicaso said. "It's a very profitable commodity."
Nicaso said Ecstasy and other synthetic drugs are produced by a variety of criminal organizations in Canada, many of which are learning to cooperate in the production, transportation and marketing of the drugs.
Until 2003 access to the chemicals used to produce Ecstasy and other synthetic drugs like methamphetamine weren't restricted in Canada. Now Canadian investigators are working with the pharmaceutical industry to track the chemicals used to make the drugs, said RCMP Staff Sgt. Luc Beaucage, who is responsible for the Drug and Organized Crime Awareness Service in Quebec and Ontario.
He said the illegal drug labs appear to be getting larger.
"It is important to remember that here in Quebec we have never dismantled an Ecstasy lab," Beaucage said. The RCMP has dismantled labs in Quebec that produce other illegal synthetic drugs.
He didn't know if that meant the drugs seized in Vermont and New York recently came from western Canada.
Ecstasy is a drug known for mild hallucinations and increasing sensual arousal. It was once considered by some to be a party drug and is mainly used by young people, said Dr. H. Westley Clark, a director in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, of Rockville, Maryland, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The drug can cause nervousness, dehydration, tension and make it harder to regulate body temperature. It can also lead to inappropriate emotional bonding, Clark said.
It can kill, but it's not as directly lethal as some other drugs. Still, between 2004 and 2006 the number of emergency room visits caused by Ecstasy use increased by 64 percent, Clark said.
"You might wind up engaging in sexual activity because of this inappropriate emotional bonding," Clark said. With "anything that decreases your decision-making skills you have to be concerned about unprotected sexual activity."
Wetherell said that in 2005-2006 Canada started replacing Belgium and the Netherlands as the primary source country for Ecstasy in the United States. The street price for Ecstasy can range from $15 a tablet to $30, depending on where in the country it is sold, she said.
Most attempts to smuggle Ecstasy into the United States from Canada are through ports of entry. The pills are small and easy to conceal in vehicles, expert said.
But there are indications it is being smuggled across the border in upstate New York and Vermont as well.
In 2007, the Border Patrol had five Ecstasy seizures along the Canadian border, three of them in what's called the Swanton sector, which runs from Ogdensburg, New York, to the Maine-New Hampshire line. In 2008 there were five on the northern border, four in the same sector. So far in the current fiscal year that began Oct. 1, the Border Patrol had two seizures nationwide, both in upstate New York, said Swanton Sector Spokesman Mark Henry.
The first of the four recent seizures in the region came Oct. 24, when a Montreal man tried to enter the United States at Alburgh with almost 60,000 Ecstasy tablets hidden in his truck. On Nov. 11, the Border Patrol stopped two vehicles in Fort Covington, New York, and seized about 58,000 pills, valued at about $2 million. On Nov. 13, Border Patrol agents found $1 million worth of Ecstasy in the trunk of a car (in that case agents didn't count the pills) stopped at a checkpoint in North Hudson, New York.
Even by national standards, the 200,000 table seizure at Highgate Springs was a big one, Wetherell said.
Court documents filed in federal court in Burlington said the driver of the vehicle told investigators he'd been asked by someone he met in a bar if he wanted to make some extra money. He'd rented the van Nov. 23 and left it for several hours in a parking lot outside Montreal. He and his girlfriend were planning to drive the van to New York City, pull over and wait to be contacted.
The woman said she and her boyfriend had made three previous trips to New York. They were paid $5,000 to $8,000 per trip, the documents said.
Beaucage said Canadian law enforcement agencies were working to reduce demand in Canada through treatment and educational programs and to stop trafficking through law enforcement.
"The drug economy works like any economic model, supply and demand," he said. "As long as there is a demand there will be production."