Six men were arrested Wednesday, Sept. 1, on suspicion of intending to smuggle into Canada opium poppies that they allegedly picked up at a Bellingham discount store.
Immigrations and Customs and Enforcement agents tailed a vehicle containing four of the men as it drove to the Dollar Plus store in the 4100 block of Meridian Street.
Several of the men left the car and brought empty hockey bags into the store; a short while later they exited the rear of the store with full hockey bags, which they began to load into two vehicles, according to a police report read at the suspects' first appearance in Whatcom County Superior Court.
Agents stopped the men to question them, causing one to drop a bag and run back into the store, according to the report. Agents saw poppy bulbs and stems on the ground inside the store.
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They received a warrant to search the store and the hockey bags and seized 200 pounds of dried poppies and more than $1,400 in cash, said Rick Sucee, commander of the Northwest Regional Drug Task Force, which assisted the agents in arresting the men.
One man, Pritpal Singh, 23, whose father owns the store, said opium poppies would be delivered to the store and were kept in boxes or bags underneath a counter, and customers could purchase them upon asking, according to the report.
He said the worth of the poppies quadrupled in Canada: A box that sold for $475 in the U.S. would sell for $2,500 in Canada, according to the report. Another man, Saajid Ali, told agents he was paid $500 to transport the drugs to Canada.
Agents arrested each man on suspicion of possessing a controlled substance with intent to distribute it; they're identified as Saajid Ali, 18, Khoa Mach, 20, Zaman Pasha, 20, Brian Tran, 20, all of Surrey, B.C., and Pritpal Singh, 23, and Balraj Singh, 22, of Bellingham.
The arrests are the latest in a series related to opium-poppy smuggling that spans two counties and the international border.
On Aug. 13, Delta, B.C., police raided a flower shop and arrested a man on suspicion of possessing 3,600 opium poppy pods. Police made another raid in Chilliwack, B.C., on Aug. 23, when 60,000 plants were seized, according to the Vancouver Sun.
On Aug. 16, ICE agents saw a man, Harwinder Basar, 21, of Tacoma place a black bag filled with the poppies in Whatcom County near the U.S.-Canadian border. After he was arrested, he told agents he was paid $500 to transport the drugs to the border, according to charging documents filed in Whatcom County Superior Court.
On Aug. 26, drug task force agents in Skagit County arrested a Surrey, B.C., man on suspicion of possessing 115 pounds of poppies, which were hidden inside his semi-truck, according to the Skagit Valley Herald.
Lorie Dankers, an ICE spokeswoman, declined to comment on any connection between these arrests.
Sucee said the poppies are grown in arid climates and dried. They are commonly consumed by being crushed up and put into tea.