Battle at the Border: National Northern Border Counternarcotics Drug Strategy

By Caroline Murray, Albany Government Law Review

I. Introduction

“It’s our dirty little secret,” said Franklin County District Attorney Derek P. Champagne.[1]  He was speaking of the U.S.- Canadian border drug trafficking issue.[2]  At the time of his statement, Mr. Champagne was prosecuting the drug bust of smuggler, Lee Marlowe, who was apprehended after an alert went out, “for a vehicle from the border with a load of marijuana.”[3] Congressman Bill Owens claimed this bust was the result of winning House approval of the Northern Border Counternarcotics Strategy Act one-month prior.[4]  Senator Charles Schumer, pushed the bill through the Senate and President Obama signed it into law on January 4, 2011.[5]

II. National Northern Border Counternarcotics Strategy and New York State

No longer a dirty secret, drug smuggling along the U.S.-Canadian border is finally getting the attention it deserves.  On January 20, 2012, Gil Kerlikowske, Director of National Drug Control Policy, released the Obama Administration’s National Northern Border Counternarcotics Strategy (Strategy).[6]  Director Kerlikowske stated:

Our shared border—which separates two friendly nations with a long history of social, cultural, and economic ties—demands a specific strategy to confront the unique threats presented by illegal drug trafficking . . . . Drug use and its consequences are significant threats to the public health and safety of communities in both the United States and Canada.  As we work to emphasize drug prevention, treatment, and recovery initiatives in the United States, we must ensure that we also build and expand upon existing initiatives that work to protect public safety and health along our Northern border by disrupting drug trafficking.[7]

Transnational Criminal Organizations are working on both sides of the border and exploiting the international divide for the transportation of drugs.  Both President Obama and Prime Minister Harper acknowledge the combined duty of each country on February 4, 2011 in Beyond the Border: A Joint Vision for Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness.[8]

The 2012 Strategy’s five chapters each discuss one of five Strategic Objectives, which are meant to achieve the Strategic Goal to “substantially reduce the flow of illicit drugs and drug proceeds along the Northern border.”[9]

The northern border of the U.S. is difficult to monitor due to its length and geography and has become the leading entry point for ecstasy into the country.[10]  Since 2005 seizures of ecstasy coming through the Canadian border have been eight times greater than those at the Mexican border.[11]  While the Strategy will focus on reducing the flow of illegal drugs between the U.S. and Canadian border, this is a mighty task as the 5,225-mile border between these two countries is the largest in the world.[12]

The Strategy acknowledges that because of the “unusual intersection of governmental authority of multiple sovereigns and geographical complexity has created an opportunity for criminals seeking to smuggle narcotics into the United States.”[13]  Aside from the international border, overlapping authorities also include federal, state, local and tribal jurisdictions.[14]

In fact, the “Challenges at St. Regis Mohawk,” are highlighted in The Strategy during chapter four, which has the strategic objective to “enhance counterdrug efforts and cooperation with tribal governments along the Northern border.”[15]  The Strategy discusses the “tripartite division of law enforcement responsibility,” in regards to law enforcement activity on tribal lands.[16]  Tripartite means that the tribal land can be patrolled by federal, tribal, state, or any combination of those law enforcement agents.[17] St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, is one of six tribal lands, which are “directly adjacent to the border.”[18]  St. Regis Mohawk is a Federally recognized tribe for the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, and the reservation is located within the boundaries of New York State.  The majority of the reservation’s northern border is located along the St. Lawrence River, which causes multiple challenges in apprehending smugglers.[19]  During the winter months, the river freezes over causing many unofficial “ice roads,” which are unpatrolled and are often times used for smuggling drugs.[20]

The Canadian tribe also has lands south of the river, which are adjacent to the U.S. Border and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s Reservation.[21]  Therefore, “the boundaries of seven governments (two countries, two tribes, two provinces, and one state) come together in the same geographical area.”[22]  However, “[d]espite the number and variety of law enforcement agencies that may have authority to provide in Indian country, many tribal communities find that there are inadequate law enforcement resources available.”[23]

A potential solution addressed by the Strategy is the idea of pooling resources and working together to form more efficient policing.[24]  While a pooling of resources might be in the best interest for effective and successful reductions in the smuggling of illegal drugs, the Strategy makes sure to note that each reservation is unique and that “great care” will be used in implementing all attempts at working together to guarantee the involvement of all “key players,” including tribal law enforcement.[25]

In conclusion, Senator Schumer’s comments on the release of the Strategy reflect his hope in the success of this initiative, “I pushed so hard for this strategy to be finalized because we have to immediately stop the flow of drugs from Canada into New York, and it’s going to take an inter-agency and international effort.”[26]   As illicit drug shipments coming through New York State’s Franklin County have been tracked to thirty-one states, this truly is a multi-state and international problem.[27]  Senator Gillibrand stated:

Drug smuggling, and the violence that comes with it, may be facing the end of a lucrative era being on the losing end of a battle, being fought to protect and tighten our borders.  The Office of National Drug Control Policy claims that with the implementation of the new Strategy, not only confront drug trafficking head on, but will also ease the legal travel between two countries that have celebrated a long history of friendship and cultural ties.[29]


[1] Dan Freedman, Lawlessness on the Borderline, Times Union (Jan. 23, 2011), http://www.timesunion.com/news/article/Lawlessness-on-the-borderline-972406.php.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Press Release, Office of Nat’l Drug Control Policy, Releases Northern Border Drug Control Strategy (Jan. 20, 2012), http://www.whitehouse.gov/ondcp/news-releases-remarks/office-of-national-drug-control-policy-releases-northern-border-drug-control-strategy.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Press Release, Schumer, Gillibrand, Owens: Feds Release First-Ever Northern Border Anti-Drug Strategy – Plan Improves International Coordination to Shut Down Flow of Drugs from Canada to NY [hereinafter Schumer] (Jan. 20, 2012), available at http://www.gillibrand.senate.gov/newsroom/press/release/schumer-gillibrand-owens-announce-feds-release-first-ever-northern-border-anti-drug-strategy_plan-improves-international-coordination-to-shut-down-flow-of-drugs-from-canada-to-ny.

[11] Id.

[12] Office of Nat’l Drug Control Policy: Northern Border Counternarcotics Strategy  (2012) [hereinafter Strategy], available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/page/files/national_northern_border_counternarcotics_strategy_.pdf.

[13] Id. at 30.

[14] Dan Freedman, Drawing a Harder Line in Drug War, Times Union  (Jan. 20, 2012), http://www.timesunion.com/news/article/Drawing-a-harder-line-in-drug-war-2642947.php.

[15] Strategy, supra note 12, at 30.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id. at 29.

[19] Id.

[20] Id. at 30.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id. at 31.

[26] Schumer, supra note 10.

[27] Freedman, supra note 14.

[28] Schumer, supra note 10.

[29] Id.

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