Pubdate: Sun, 02 Nov 2003
Source: Observer, The (UK)
Copyright: 2003 The Observer
Author: Tony Thompson


South African cannabis now dominates illegal trade

A new generation of young British drug barons are becoming overnight
millionaires by importing high-quality cannabis direct from South Africa.

The gangs are taking advantage of the rock-bottom price of the South
African product - known locally as dagga - to enjoy profit margins as
high as 4,000 per cent and police are warning that those behind the
trade could become richer and more powerful than those trafficking
cocaine and heroin.

Cannabis from South Africa and neighbouring countries is some of the
most potent in the world and now accounts for the vast majority of
seizures in the UK.

In Britain, high quality 'skunk' cannabis sells for around UKP 3,500 a
kilo. In South Africa the same product can be bought for UKP 20 a kilo,
less if bought in bulk. In some areas, dagga is said to be on sale for
only 40p a kilo.

The rapid growth of the market is creating overnight
multi-millionaires who invest their new-found wealth in other areas of

Last week MPs voted to approve proposals to downgrade cannabis from
Class B to Class C. The move, which is intended to allow police to
focus attention on cocaine and heroin, is expected to increase demand
for the drug, now smoked regularly by more than three million Britons.
Although penalties for trafficking cannabis will be increased, they
will be considerably lower than those for Class A drugs.

Those running the trade rely on a network of couriers to bring
suitcase-sized loads of the drug to the UK, often via France, Germany
and in particular Ireland.

Over the past year at least 100 South African couriers have been
detained at Dublin International Airport, leading one judge, Patrick
McCartan, to declare the situation 'out of control'. During the
summer, eight out of 10 drug smugglers arrested in Dublin were South

The gangs have now switched tactics and are flying into other
airports. Customs officials at Birmingham have dealt with a string of
cases of South African couriers in recent months. Authorities in South
Africa have also seized shipments bound for the West Midlands.

Most of the mules are white Afrikaaners who have fallen on hard times.
They are given a plane ticket and paid around UKP 500 to carry a suitcase
holding up to 25 kilos of marijuana. The drugs are wrapped in plastic
and covered in coffee and carbon paper to avoid detection. The
couriers, usually women, are given telephone numbers to call on
arrival in Dublin and then get tickets to complete their journeys to
the UK.

One police source told The Observer: 'A lot of what is going on involves
testing out routes. Because the amount of money invested is low, the
traffickers can afford to lose a shipment or two. The average amount the
couriers carry is 25 kilos. That costs UKP 500, but is worth UKP 75,000 in the

Interpol now rates South Africa as the fourth-largest cannabis
producer in the world. Around a quarter of worldwide seizures involve
South African cannabis. The trend is confirmed by a a report by the
Institute for Security Studies in Cape Town, which says that most of
the marijuana seized in the UK, and a third of that seized globally,
is now of South African origin.

A spokeswoman for the National Criminal Intelligence Service told The
Observer: 'This is an area of particular interest to us, as criminals who
make money from trafficking cannabis may use the profits to fund other
criminal activity. In addition, a consignment of cannabis may well include
Class A drugs.'

The potential for vast profit from South African cannabis was
highlighted last week when five members of a gang led by unemployed
24-year-old Robert Beal were jailed for varying terms totalling 30

Beal was arrested at a north London flat along with two South African
accomplices, businessmen Aaron Reichlin, 53, and 40-year-old Katiso
Molefe, when police carried out a search in connection with a robbery.
They found 25,000 ecstasy pills, 5.2 kilos of cannabis and a cache of
firearms, including a sub-machine gun and two semi-automatic pistols.

They also found details of a shipment of two electrical transformers
from South Africa which were awaiting collection in Ipswich. When
police searched the transformer units at the dockyard they found 825
kilos of high quality herbal cannabis. They resealed the empty
containers and put them under surveillance as they were taken to an
industrial estate in Wembley, north-west London, where police arrested
the three other gang members.

Beal had paid UKP 65,000 for the cannabis concealed in the transformer
units. In the UK, its value was UKP 4.5 million. 
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