A fashion model, a sex shop owner, and two dozen other Americans have recently been arrested at UK airports with huge stashes of poorly-concealed weed in their luggage.
Since January, UK cops have busted 26 people for bringing weed into the country on transatlantic flights. The first 14 of these arrests all involved passengers traveling from Los Angeles to Heathrow, but in recent months, cops also nabbed travelers coming from Las Vegas, DC, New York, and even Toronto. Each passenger was caught with 50 to 100 pounds of weed and several thousand dollars in cash.
“We are working to understand how these seizures are connected, however to get this many off the same route in such a short period of time is clearly very unusual,” said Darren Barr, senior investigating officer for the NCA, to Vice News.
The sudden string of smuggling busts has proved particularly puzzling for UK cops. Customs officers are used to rooting out secret stashes of cocaine or fentanyl, but have rarely seen so many people trying to brazenly stroll through the airport with pounds of dank bud. Cops were also surprised that these smugglers took such little effort to conceal the weed. The contraband was simply packed into vacuum-sealed bags and then chucked into suitcases without any attempt at hiding it from watchful authorities.
The people who have gotten busted so far aren't the usual kind of drug smugglers that British authorities are used to dealing with, either. The list of recent arrests includes a 23-year-old male model who worked for Gucci and Moncler, a 29-year-old strip club server, and a 31-year-old boutique sex shop owner. Nearly all of the attempted smugglers were young people of color, and most were either freelance workers or unemployed.
Everyone who has been arrested so far is also a “cleanskin” - a term for someone who has never been convicted of a serious crime. This evidence has led NCA officials to conclude that drug traffickers are actively recruiting underemployed people to do their dirty work for them. Most of these people initially claimed that someone else stashed the weed in their bags, but eventually admitted to willingly smuggling it in exchange for much-needed cash.
This new wave of drug trafficking is clearly an attempt to meet the massive demand for weed in the UK. Adult-use weed remains entirely illegal throughout the British isles, and the country's medical marijuana program has also failed to provide affordable medicine to the people who need it most. The lack of access has driven prices through the roof.
“Flying shipments of weed from California into the UK is a high-risk, but increasingly frequent practice, given the opportunity to make up to ten times the price overseas than in US wholesale markets,” said Lily Temperton, head of analysis at UK cannabis consultancy firm Hanway Associates, to Vice News.
“Current wholesale benchmarks in the US are around $1,000 per pound, roughly $2.20 a gram, with falling prices due to chronic oversupply in states like California,” Temperton explained. “Many producers are selling flower below their cost of production domestically, making exporting to the UK, where customers are willing to pay £80 for 3.5 grams [$27.65 a gram], a more attractive risk.”
So far, cops have seized £26 million ($31.4 million) worth of weed in these 26 arrests. Eight of the traffickers have already been convicted and sentenced to at least three years in prison. NCA officials are now advising Americans that this get-rich smuggling scheme is not likely to work out in their favor.
“These cases serve as further warnings to those who think they can get away with smuggling drugs into the UK,” said Andy Noyes, NCA Heathrow Branch Commander, to Vice. “No matter what you might get told by those organizing these trips, you will get caught, and as these individuals will tell you, you will face jail time.”
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