Pubdate: Thu, 12 Sep 2002
Source: Detroit Free Press (MI)
Contact:  2002 Detroit Free Press
Author: Christian Plumb, Reuters


Drug Tourism New Fight For Italian Tax Police 

MILAN, Italy -- On a sunny Saturday on a highway surrounded by the lakes and
mountains between Italy and Switzerland, a young man watched Italian tax
police inspect his sleek motor scooter. 

His cross-border jaunt into Europe's newest drug paradise came to an end
when police discovered the first of five small pouches of top-grade

"Any more than that, then he could be going to prison," said Loredano, a
plainclothes border tax policeman. "Our dogs would have been all over him
with that amount." 

The border guard's German shepherds kept busy elsewhere, sniffing the trunk
of a nearby car, though that search proves fruitless. 

Police search up to 1,000 vehicles a day at the crossing into Italy from
Switzerland's Ticino province, a mecca for Italian marijuana users since it
legalized cannabis in 1997. 

"Fundamentally, Italians prefer the Swiss product because it's high-quality
and cultivated with care," said Loredano, who would not give his last name,
adding that marijuana grown in the area recently won a prize at an Amsterdam

"It seems the Swiss aren't only good at making watches," he said. 

Italian appetite has brought about a boom in the area's canapai, the
equivalent of Amsterdam's coffee shops. They have increased to 15 from just
two 18 months ago in Chiasso, a short stroll from the Italian lakeside
border town of Como. Police say there are 60 such stores throughout Ticino. 

Typical of the new cottage industry is Biosfera, a store tucked away on a
quiet residential street in the lakeside town of Lugano, Switzerland. It
sells books, seeds, clothing and cosmetics, but most visitors are struck by
the herbal aroma wafting from a large stockroom in the back. 

The stores' best sellers are called perfumed pouches. The name suggests they
are scented sachets for lingerie drawers, but the contents are most commonly

For the Italian tax police, who once concentrated on smugglers sneaking
gold, furs, jewelry, watches and cigarettes across the border from
Switzerland, where tax rates used to be much lower than in Italy, the boom
in drug tourism has added a complicated wrinkle to life. 

Adding to the cat-and-mouse quality of the hunt are numerous holes in the
chain-link fence that divides the 9-mile stretch of the border with
Switzerland that Loredano and his colleagues patrol. 

A climb up one forest path marked with bright orange arrows painted on trees
and rocks, shows the way to one of those gaps, where border police say
Italians pick up their stash after ordering it through the Web from a Swiss

"For them, it's the industry of the future," said Antonello Reni, commander
of the Como tax police. "We only manage to get a trifle of all they

Last year, that trifle was 154 pounds of marijuana, up from 55 pounds in
1999 and 37 pounds in 1998, he said. 

The number of people caught with marijuana tripled last year to 2,173 from
about 700 in 1998. Few do prison time, though, as overworked magistrates in
the area let many go free, and let others off with a warning, sometimes with
a requirement they attend an antidrug course. 

The lure of dealing has proved to be a powerful attraction for some northern
Italians, given the potential demand for their wares in nearby wealthy
cities such as Milan, Turin and Bergamo. 

One 18-year-old banker's son was caught at the highway border crossing with
a list of customers and how much they had paid, neatly tabulated, Reni said. 

"I understand that there's an entrepreneurial spirit here, but they've
chosen the wrong business," he said.
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