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Marijuana through the mail on the rise

(March 16) — Marijuana traffickers are taking advantage of our national postal service like never before, according to new statistics from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

The agency, which handles everything from mail fraud to parcel theft, reported a 400 percent increase in seizures of marijuana packages between 2007 and 2009. That amounts to more than 43,000 pounds of intercepted marijuana last year. Despite the increase, the number of inspectors — who comb packages with help from teams of sniffing dogs — has held steady at around 1,600 nationwide.

There’s no way to be sure whether the increase in busts is because of more vigilant inspection, increased use of the postal service to ship marijuana or a combination of both. But San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne told ABC News that more busts usually means more trafficking. “There’s no better way to ship drugs right now,” he said.

Mailbox marijuana delivery offers the convenience of door-to-door shipment and acquisition, and takes advantage of a service that’s accessible to nearly everyone, everywhere.

It’s also less likely to result in arrests: Mules can preserve anonymity, and packages can be mislabeled to throw off investigators.

Agents behind a recent bust in the Midwest, which yielded marijuana worth an estimated $100,000, discovered the drugs in a box labeled as a Motorola delivery.

Postal inspectors say pot is often hidden inside computers, guitar amplifiers, appliances and other electronic devices. Packages will also include items like coffee beans to mask marijuana’s odor.

Despite the sense of immunity among those shipping and receiving marijuana, and the tactical advantages the method offers, plenty of arrests still happen. Last year, 1,278 people were nabbed and charged, including a group of seven men who’d shipped 234 packages containing 3,000 pounds of marijuana concealed in spray paint cans.

The operation had solicited clients in a handful of states, including Florida, Connecticut and New York, as well as Puerto Rico. In that bust, like many others, postal agents teamed up with federal law enforcement. They also rely on video surveillance of post offices and package-scanning records to track down culprits.

And money never hurts: The U.S Postal Inspection Service is offering a $50,000 reward for information that can lead to arrests of marijuana mailers.

Not surprisingly, most pot is shipped from well-known “hot spots” near the Mexican border: Texas, California, New Mexico and Arizona were the locales of 75 percent of last year’s busts.

But it’s also coming from Canada, where marijuana enforcement is more lax. In 2008, British Columbia resident Kendell Arthur Berntson was charged with mailing pot, via online order, to hundreds of U.S. residents.

Postal investigators have seen benefits of a new tactic called “ZIP code targeting” to identify locations most likely to be used for trafficking. Still, the recent surge in busts suggests that postal investigators have an increasingly potent problem on their hands.

By Katie Drummond

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