LONDON – When Kiara Lanee Malone, a 31-year-old boutique sex shop owner from St Louis, Missouri, was stopped at London’s Heathrow airport after arriving on a flight from Los Angeles, border officials discovered one of her suitcases was stuffed with 27.5kg (around 60 pounds) of barely concealed weed worth around £1 million on Britain’s illegal drug market.
Malone told police that she was travelling to London to have cosmetic procedures and had been given the bags by someone else. But just a few weeks later she pleaded guilty to drug smuggling and will be sentenced next month.
It was an odd case. Smuggling large amounts of bulky cannabis in suitcases on flights is rare. Border officers at Heathrow are used to pulling people for carrying cocaine, not huge amounts of weed.
But people kept on being arrested after coming across the Atlantic with suitcases full of weed: a 23-year-old male model from New York, a 26-year-old photographer from California and a 29-year old former strip bar waitress from Texas.
Within a week of Malone being caught in January this year, another 10 US citizens, all travelling from LA with similarly large amounts of weed packed into suitcases, were picked up at Heathrow.
Through February and the start of March, there were more arrests, including two teenagers. And they were not just coming on flights from LA, but now from all over the US, from Las Vegas, Washington DC, Atlanta, New York and Chicago, as well as two Canadians arriving from Toronto. Three people came into the UK at other airports, at Edinburgh and Gatwick.
On Sunday there were two more arrests of US nationals at Heathrow off a flight from Vancouver, Canada, making it a total of 26 young men and women who have now been discovered with suitcases full of weed from North America into the UK in the space of just 8 weeks. And these are just the ones who are being caught.
The National Crime Agency, which is investigating the sudden uptick in cases, admits it is a strange phenomenon. They do not often catch people bringing large amounts of cannabis into the UK.
“We are working to understand how these seizures are connected, however to get this many off the same route in such a short period of time is clearly very unusual,” said Darren Barr, the NCA’s senior investigating officer.
The arrests, involving a total UK street value of around £26 million, have created a queue of smuggling cases being heard five miles down the road from Heathrow at Isleworth Crown Court in west London.
“The prison sentences handed out are the consequence of foolish decisions made by people who either think, or have been told, that they will get away with smuggling drugs into the UK,” said Andy Noyes, Heathrow Branch Commander at the National Crime Agency. “These attempts were largely unsophisticated, with commercial amounts of cannabis carried unconcealed within large suitcases.”
But what is behind this spike in weed smuggling attempts?
Until now, bringing bulk amounts of weed on flights has been viewed by smugglers as a tactic of high risk with a relatively low return. Less than one percent of the cannabis seized at the UK border, whether by land or sea, last year was smuggled in amounts between 10 and 100kg.
Analysis by VICE World News of available evidence from the National Crime Agency and court cases reveals it is highly likely that those already convicted of smuggling the cannabis, who are serving up to three years in British prisons, could have been recruited – potentially online – supplied with the drugs and dispatched to the UK by the same US-based drug smuggling ring.
Despite living in cities across the US, the first 14 couriers all travelled to the UK on flights from Los Angeles. As news of an increasing number of people being arrested after arriving at Heathrow from Los Angeles had been made public in the UK and US media, by February there was a clear change of tactic and the smugglers stopped coming from LA. Instead they arrived from a string of other US cities. However, it is not yet clear if they took internal flights from LA to these other cities before departing for the UK.
All those arrested have been US or Canadian citizens. Apart from two teenagers and a 48-year old, they are all in their 20s or 30s. Most appear to have freelance or part time jobs or are unemployed. Of those who have so far been sentenced, it appears they are what is known in the drug smuggling world as “cleanskins” – people with no previous drug offences, even though some had been convicted of other minor crimes. The majority are Black or mixed race Americans.
Of the six who have already been convicted of smuggling Class B drugs into the UK from the US in January, all said that in LA they had been given pre-packed, locked suitcases containing cannabis, vacuum-packed in multiple packets. All arrived with several thousand dollars in cash on them; said they did not know the codes to unlock the suitcases; pleaded guilty straight away; and gave little to no detail about who was paying them, how they came by the drugs or who they were taking them to.
But not everyone grabbed by customs officers has been so tight-lipped about how they got hold of the drugs. In a case last year, there was a familiar-sounding story which was dismissed in court at the time as a lie.
In March 2022, Akintunde Akinwande, a 32 year old Californian, was arrested after arriving on a flight from San Francisco to Belfast in Northern Ireland via Heathrow with a locked suitcase containing 32kg of barely concealed, vacuum-packed bags of weed.
After his arrest he told a probation officer he had fallen in with the wrong crowd and was offered an opportunity to take packages abroad in exchange for money.
He told investigators he had been instructed to meet a man in Burbank, Los Angeles, where he was given two locked suitcases. He said he was then told to travel to a coffee shop where he was given $5,000 in cash, which he was to use to book a return flight to Belfast. After being stopped at Belfast airport the authorities demanded they inspect his locked suitcases, but when he called his LA contact to request the code to open the cases, he said he was told to walk away and abandon them.
On the 13th of January this year Akinwande was jailed for two years for drug smuggling after a judge criticised his "elaborate tale" of being given a suitcase and money by a man.
So who are these drug mules?
Sabrina Desiree Hobby, a 29-year old from Austin, Texas appeared last Thursday at Isleworth Crown Court via a video link from Bronzefield prison after trying to smuggle 36kg of cannabis worth £1.08m into the UK.
The court heard how Hobby has three young children aged 1, 8 and 9, of whom one is disabled, and whom she has supported on her own via a job working as a waitress in a strip club. Her defence barrister said Hobby had lost her job in September 2022 and “through naivety and desperation” took up an “unfortunate opportunity that fell into her lap”. Before travelling to Heathrow, Hobby had never been out of the US before, and was “clearly a drug mule…an easy option for drug dealers because she was desperate”. She was sentenced to 26 months in prison.
In another hearing at Isleworth Crown Court on the same day, Ara Janneh, 25 and Madani Ba, 23, both from New York, appeared in the dock behind plastic screens. They were caught with two suitcases each filled with 27kg of cannabis on the same flight from LA to London on January 15th, two days after Hobby was arrested..
Janneh was born in The Gambia and her family came to New York as political refugees when she was six. Tragically her “straight-A student” younger sister Adama was electrocuted to death after falling onto a train track in the Bronx in 2018.
She had been in a relationship with Ba, a male model who has worked with Puma, Gucci, Ben Sherman and Moncler, for three years. But despite his modelling work and her part time house cleaning job, the couple struggled for money, the court heard.
As a result, according to Ba’s defence barrister, he “succumbed to temptation to earn a small amount of money” and agreed to involve his girlfriend on the drug smuggling trip.
Janneh’s defence barrister described her as a “lovely young woman who made a poor error of judgement”. Janneh was sentenced to 12 months and Ba for 20 months.
When VICE World News contacted Janneh’s brother, who did not want to give his name, in New York shortly after her arrest, he was clearly shocked. He said: “This does not sound like her.”
Until now, smugglers have been reluctant to take the risk of shifting large amounts of weed via flights from the US to the UK because the profit margins have not been high enough. But this appears to be changing.
Even though cannabis yields lower profit margins than cocaine, whose value rises 25 times from Colombia to the UK, the money to be made by moving weed across the Atlantic is rapidly improving. Experts suspect the falling price of legal American weed compared to its rising premium price on the UK’s illicit market could explain the new wave of Americans being arrested for cannabis smuggling at the UK border.
Lily Temperton, head of analysis at Hanway Associates, a UK cannabis consultancy firm, said imported high quality US weed now commands ten times its US wholesale price in the UK and in Amsterdam.
“Flying shipments of weed from California into the UK is a high-risk, but increasingly frequent practice, given the opportunity to make up to ten times the price overseas than in US wholesale markets,” said Temperton.
“Current wholesale benchmarks in the US are around $1,000 per pound, roughly $2.20 a gram, with falling prices due to chronic oversupply in states like California. Many producers are selling flower below their cost of production domestically, making exporting to the UK, where customers are willing to pay £80 for 3.5 grams, a more attractive risk.”
She said once over here, it is increasingly sold through distributors that have built trust with customers via large Telegram groups, private Instagram pages, and reviews on crypto sites, to differentiate themselves from the plethora of sellers selling fake US weed, often sold as “Cali” weed. She said US weed is more commonly imported through the postal system in bulk flower, then packaged, sometimes with verifiable QR codes and batch information to prove to buyers it is genuine
Temperton said the UK is showing “clear signs of the same hype” for imported US flower as consumers in Amsterdam’s coffee shops, who pay an average of €30 a gram for US “Cali” product from the likes of Doja Pak and TenCo. “In the absence of tolerated or regulated retail channels, sellers build trust among consumers using private instagram pages, Telegram groups and in some cases the ability to ‘verify’ product origin through a QR code scan.”
The NCA, which has started a social media campaign warning people not to accept invitations to smuggle drugs into the UK, told VICE World News it is continuing to investigate whether there is a common link between this spate of weed smuggling cases.
NCA Heathrow Branch Commander Andy Noyes said: “These cases serve as further warnings to those who think they can get away with smuggling drugs into the UK.
“No matter what you might get told by those organising these trips, you will get caught, and as these individuals will tell you, you will face jail time.
“The NCA and our partners in Border Force are determined to do all we can to target drugs couriers, and disrupt the international organised crime groups involved in drug trafficking.”