The United Kingdom’s cannabis smuggling problem just got weirder. In January, we reported that authorities at London’s Heathrow Airport added extra security checks for travelers coming from Los Angeles due to an increase in travelers bringing cannabis from California.
But the smuggling hasn’t stopped; in fact, now the pot couriers are coming from multiple airports and appear to be using unsuspecting young people as drug mules. Authorities have arrested more than 25 U.S. nationals and convicted eight people on drug charges since the start of the year, according to the U.K.’s National Crime Agency.
The drug runners traveled from not only Los Angeles, but also Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., Chicago, New York, Atlanta and Toronto, according to Vice News.
British authorities say this type of unsophisticated drug smuggling is unusual, with smugglers attempting to walk through U.K. customs checkpoints with more than 100 pounds of cannabis stuffed in suitcases. The cannabis is vacuum-sealed but not otherwise hidden, according to photos released by the agency.
Dozens of American states have legalized either recreational or medical marijuana, but cannabis remains illegal in the United Kingdom. U.K. courts have given sentences between eight and 32 months for people convicted in connection with this string of cannabis smuggling attempts.
The majority of people charged in this latest wave appear to be young people of color who claim they had no idea what was in their bags, according to a report by Vice News. The list includes a 23-year-old male model who’s worked for brands like Gucci and Moncler and a 29-year-old strip club server from Texas.
A 33-year-old from the United States who was arrested after flying to London from San Francisco told police that he was unaware that he was carrying drugs. He said that he was given two locked suitcases filled with cannabis by a man in Burbank, California, and then was told to go to a nearby coffee shop where another man gave him $5,000 in cash to purchase flights. A U.K. judge called the man’s story an “elaborate tale” and then gave him a two-year prison sentence, according to the BBC.
An attorney for the 29-year-old server at a Texas strip club told the U.K. courts that the woman only took the drug smuggling opportunity out of “naivety and desperation” after she lost her job and still needed to support her three children, according to Vice News.
This recent surge in cannabis smuggling is likely being driven by America’s legalization of marijuana. Cannabis reform has dropped the price of pot in the United States from as high as $2,000 a pound in 2016 to as low as $100 a pound today. But cannabis remains expensive in the United Kingdom, making it attractive to drug smugglers. California cannabis can sell for $28 a gram in the United Kingdom, making it worth almost 10 times more than its price in America, according to Vice News.
NCA Heathrow Branch Commander Andy Noyes said in a press release that anyone who brings cannabis into the United Kingdom is at risk of prosecution, even if they are unaware of what is in their luggage.
“Couriers are often recruited with promises of payment or free holidays,” Noyes said. “But in reality these attempts just end in jail sentences. I’d urge anyone considering smuggling cannabis into the UK, whether from the US or elsewhere, to think twice. It isn’t worth the risk.”