Cannabis seizures at Heathrow surge amid rise of cheap Californian marijuana

Close-up of person rolling a marijuana joint
Close-up of person rolling a marijuana joint

The decision to legalise cannabis in some US states is being blamed for a sudden surge in the smuggling of the drug in Britain, with users clamouring to buy marijuana grown in California.

Powerful strains of class B are currently flooding into the UK with customs officials seizing almost half a ton of the drug at Heathrow airport during one 10-day period last month.

Customs stopped 13 passengers arriving in Britain on flights from Los Angeles’ LAX airport allegedly carrying large quantities of “weed” in their luggage.

One 27-year-old man is accused of having 47kg of cannabis in his suitcases, more than twice the maximum luggage allowance permitted on a commercial flight.

Another female passenger, who was stopped at Heathrow on Jan 13, was allegedly found with 40kg of the drug stashed in her luggage.

The oldest of those arrested was 48, the youngest 23, and while they are from different parts of the United States, they all flew into the UK on the same route from Los Angeles.

They have all been charged with attempting to import a Class B drug and have been remanded into custody ahead of a court appearance later this month.

Extra potency of drug

But the seizures and arrests have raised questions about why American grown cannabis is suddenly crossing the Atlantic in such large quantities and whether Britain is suffering the fallout from California’s decision to legalise so-called soft drugs.

Marijuana for recreational use has been legal in the state since 2016 leading to a multi-million pound industry.

It has also allowed producers to employ sophisticated agricultural techniques in order to develop highly potent new strains which are in huge demand among users globally.

Some Californian producers have been marketing their drugs by selling them in sealed cans, supposedly to preserve the freshness of the dried plant.

Such is the popularity of American grown marijuana among users here that some British dealers have been investing in canning machines to try to pass off domestic products as Californian.

It is thought the extra potency and higher quality of the US drug may be one of the main reasons it has found a market in the UK.

'Profits made from US cannabis can be higher in UK'

Lawrence Gibbons MBE, drugs threat lead for the National Crime Agency, said: “Cannabis is the most widely used drug in Europe, within that is the UK cannabis market the single biggest in terms of the number of consumers – with over 2.5 million users and an estimated revenue of around £2 billion a year.

“Even in countries where it has been legalised, like parts of the United States, organised crime groups often still retain control of some of the market selling high potency cannabis and exporting to illicit markets.

“Here in the UK organised crime also controls parts of the cannabis market, exploiting young or vulnerable people in distribution or production.

“Demand for US-grown cannabis is high in the UK, it is viewed as a higher quality product and therefore the profits that can be made by organised crime gangs from it are higher – even double that of domestically grown.

'Wholesale price plummets'

Some US-based drug experts also claim the decision to legalise cannabis in some US states, has resulted in the price of the drug plummeting, which has led to suppliers looking for new lucrative markets overseas.

Professor Beau Kilmer, co-director at RAND Drug Policy Research Center, said: “The bigger picture is that the wholesale prices for cannabis are just plummeting in California. What used to go for $2,000 a pound before legalisation is now going for less than $400 a pound. In some cases you hear stories of farmers selling their product for less than $200 a pound.

“Therefore, the financial risk for smuggling has gone down dramatically. There’s still a legal risk, of course, but the financial risk for smuggling 30 or 40 kilos - if it does get seized - you’re not losing as much as you would have five or six years ago."

Prof Kilmer also agreed that the potency of the marijuana coming out of California was a major factor in its global popularity.

He said: “The potency continues to increase. I haven’t seen rigorous longitudinal data from California, but over the course of six years in Colorado, we saw the average THC content go from below 15 per cent to much closer to 20 per cent.

“Sometimes you’ll see strains that are being sold at 30 per cent THC. I’m a little sceptical of some of that, but definitely, you’re seeing a lot of it being marketed as being over 25 per cent THC. So that can be part of it as well.

“Even though we’ve legalised it here in California, there’s still a really large illegal market that’s exporting to other parts of the country and abroad.”