Illegal cannabis seizures at U.S. borders, airports, and seaports are at an all time low. 

Yet the exact quantity of total illicit drugs that are flowing into the U.S. is unknown, according to three Congressional Research Service reports. There’s a few datasets that attempt to track the trafficking of illicit drugs into the country, but this information is “estimated, incomplete, imperfect, or lack nuance,” according to a 2019 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report.

Drugs, including cannabis, are either seized by border enforcement officials or later by federal, state, local, or tribal officials – each handling data in different ways. But there is no central database housing all of this drug seizure information.

“There is no comprehensive data on the total quantity of foreign-produced illicit drugs smuggled into the United States at or between official ports of entry because these are drugs that have generally evaded seizure by border officials,” a 2020 CRS report states.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it seized more than 36,000 pounds of cannabis during the first three months of Fiscal Year 2022. During the same three months for Fiscal Year 2021, there were 100,800 pounds seized by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. That’s a 64% decrease. 

About 65% of all seized, illegal drugs were seized at land ports of entry at the border; about 28% at airports of entry and about 5% at seaports of entry, according to a 2019 CRS report titled, “Illicit Drug Flows and Seizures in the United States: What Do We [Not] Know?” 

Drug smugglers sometimes use subterranean tunnels to move the product. Traffickers also bypass border barriers by launching bundles from air cannons and drones. They cut holes in the barriers and bribe border officials to provide them the keys, a more recent CRS report in 2020 titled, “Illicit Drug Smuggling Between Ports of Entry and Border Barriers” stated.

There are instances where drugs are not seized by officials at the border, despite detection. “Officials may see an individual smuggling drugs but may not be able to stop the smuggler and seize the drugs. In another example, officials conducting a controlled delivery may detect drugs but follow them to their intended destination in order to further an investigation,” a 2019 CRS report said. 

But Mexican cartels are not the only ones smuggling cannabis into the U.S. In June 2021, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at the Massena Port of Entry noted a car driven by a North American woman emanating a strong smell of cannabis. She said it was medical marijuana and upon inspection, officers found 10 one-gallon plastic bags filled with cannabis –  about five pounds in total and an estimated street value of approximately $10,000, according to a press release

“If policymakers are interested in having a more robust view of drug seizures throughout the country, they could move, through mandates or incentives, to enhance data collection and consolidation of drug seizure data by law enforcement officials,” Kristen Finklea, a specialist in domestic security, wrote in one of the CRS reports. “Policymakers may also question how border officials use intelligence about drug flows and data on drug seizures to assess the risks posed by drug trafficking and appropriately allocate resources to counter the threat.” 

Some illicit cannabis seized far from the border is also likely to be domestically grown. The issue has grown so much that those farming illicit cannabis in California are contributing to the state’s drought, according to reports. Recently, members of California’s legal cannabis industry banded together to request state government reduce or eliminate taxes on legal cannabis sales, as the underground market there has become pervasive – and less expensive than legal sales.

“Estimates of cannabis plants cultivated and the resulting marijuana production potential in the United States and elsewhere are reportedly unreliable and affected by a variety of factors. These include the quality of detection satellite or thermal imaging; the use of indoor and outdoor grow sites; challenges in distinguishing between plants used for illicit marijuana and lawful hemp; and, with varying state-level laws and regulations decriminalizing or legalizing the growing and use of marijuana for medical or recreational purposes, problems with determining which plants are grown in accordance with state policies and which may be unlawful under both state and federal laws,” a 2019 CRS report stated.

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Cynthia Fernandez is a data reporter for Grown In. Previously, she was a politics reporter for Spotlight PA, a nonpartisan newsroom based in Harrisburg and reported at the Boston Globe. In 2019 she graduated...