Rasta Weed, a mix of herbs that has a similar effect to marijuana but is not derived from the illegal plant, was recently intercepted by the Customs Department on the way into Malta via courier, perhaps, the latest legal high users have started trying to import.
The department often intercepts packages of this kind before they reach their final destination.
Even though Rasta Weed remains legal, Customs can still seize it due to false declarations on description and value, and because it would need clearance from the health authorities, said Paul Bonello, director compliance.
“At the moment, we are in the same situation we had with mephedrone before it was criminalised last September,” he said.
So far, the department has only stumbled upon one case, which arrived from New Zealand. But it has stopped several other drugs en route to their destination.
Customs was, in fact, behind the cocaine find which arrived via courier service and resulted in last Wednesday’s arraignment of a father and son from St Julians.
An exchange of information between US and UK Customs led the department to learn of drugs destined for Malta. The police were called in to collect the packet from the airport and a controlled delivery was carried out.
The package was addressed to a false name but once it was accepted, the recipients could be arrested, Mr Bonello said. However, controlled deliveries do not always work out, particularly in the case of false addresses.
Customs had a hard time keeping up with the fast developments in drugs, Mr Bonello admitted. Last year, mephedrone raised alarm bells at the department, whose people noticed a surge in the importation of particular chemicals from China, which “are not common, normally destined to particular professionals, and attract attention”.
Until it was criminalised, 14.6kg of mephedrone were intercepted and reported to the police and about 16 consignments arrived in the space of a few weeks. But as soon as the substance became illegal, they stopped, showing that importers are on the ball.
“Another drug, without certain illegal components, is always ready and waiting to replace it,” Mr Bonello said.
Last year, it was a form of ecstasy, known as BZP, which is controlled in Malta but not in some other other countries.
“One way of keeping abreast with these fast changes is by being in contact with foreign Customs organisations and exchanging information on the new trends that have been traced,” he said.
“As long as the packages are not from the EU, it is quite hard to get something illegal through,” he said, explaining that Customs was not obliged to check anything from the EU, although these were randomly controlled.
In fact, a soft toy stuffed with cannabis arrived from Germany and was intercepted by Customs through the use of scanning machines. In that case, however, the importer was never caught because he gave a false address.
The job of Customs is not just about sniffing out drugs, however; its role has changed from revenue collection to “protecting society” by tackling illegal and unfair competition for compliant traders.
“We have to find a balance between controls and facilitating commerce to remain competitive, with limited resources and an ever-increasing volume,” Mr Bonello said.
The “explosion” of e-commerce has translated into more work for Customs, with the number of packages arriving by courier service from outside the EU increasing by 51 per cent last year over 2009, while courier traffic from the EU grew by 42 per cent over the previous year.
“People are buying everything online, down to baby wipes,” said Joe Chetcuti, who heads the courier office.
There has also been an increase in under-declaration of values to avoid paying duty and tax on products coming from outside the EU. While the department used to be lenient with individuals, it has now started to step up action, especially where systematic under-pricing is noted.
“We will be imposing fines, which can go up to 100 per cent of the taxes due,” he said.
People provide false trans*action receipts, unaware that Customs can access the genuine version and spot the difference.
Thanks to an automated system, Customs has laid its hands on anything from a consignment of hatching eggs – “they could have been crocodiles” – to dead birds of paradise, a protected species. It recently also intercepted 21 consignments of tattoo machines, needles and ink, which were being imported by private individuals without licences.
Other hot items include steroids, abortion pills and counterfeit Viagra, brought over in commercial quantities. The department has also seized false passports, international driving licences and ID cards, often sold to illegal immigrants.
Fiona Galea Debono
Tuesday, 8th February 2011
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