By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By the time he reached his 20s, Bralic’s identity was just the opposite of a bullied little kid. He had become something of a hero in his city of 165,500, and no one loved that title more than he did. His outgoing and friendly personality ensured that he was the center of attention at family functions and with friends. He even had a nickname: Superman — his favorite action hero. The nickname stuck after he foiled a liquor-store robbery in Burnaby by chasing down the unsuspecting robber, tackling him and then holding him down until the police arrived a few minutes later.Happy together: Joe with family before his father died.
The Superman nickname also fit with his propensity for getting into accidents and making it out alive. At 5, he was hit by a car and survived. A few years later, he almost bled to death after he fell through a sliding glass window. To friends and family, he was the comic-book hero come to life.
“When I would be scared at night, it was Joe who I phoned,” says Dustin Riske’s sister, Simone. “He was such a good-hearted person. My mum travels, and sometimes I would be sleeping at home by myself. I would tell him I heard something, and he would run over and check the back of the house. I felt safe knowing he was there. He is the type of person you would call. He would do absolutely anything for anyone.”
Despite his displays of toughness and bravado, Bralic had an artistic side. He loved to draw. After high school, he enrolled in the prestigious Vancouver Film School, where he majored in animation. His favorite characters were Superman, Spider-Man and the X-Men. He aspired to work for Disney and draw his own cartoons. His friends pictured him as having a career in the movies as the next big action hero. Bralic was also very sensitive and easily manipulated, his friends say. “There are people who are strong, and there are people who can be persuaded or influenced, and he was that type of person,” says Ciccone. “Anyone who does steroids and wants an image is clearly not comfortable with himself. Instead of being himself, he was trying to be the fighter. He was just trying to find his place.”
Canada’s third-largest city, Vancouver has become known as “the Amsterdam of North America” because of its tolerant drug policing. With its quick access to scuba diving, river rafting, hiking, sailing, kayaking, boating, golfing, bird watching, and skiing at world-famous resorts such as Whistler/Blackcomb, it’s an outdoorsman’s paradise. It is also the home to a $4 billion marijuana industry that, via hydroponic cultivation (an indoor growing method using lights, high heat, humidity and heavily fertilized water), grows pot four times more potent than most of the stuff from Mexico and Humboldt County. Over the last decade, B.C. bud has become the region’s largest export to the U.S., next to lumber.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has reported that one pound of B.C. bud sells for as much as $6,000 in California. In nearby Seattle, B.C. bud sells for around $3,000. On the streets of Vancouver, the take would be closer to $1,500. If you’re willing to take the risk, dealing B.C. bud can bring a nice profit.
Since Prohibition, Canada and the U.S. have had a lucrative partnership in smuggling illicit contraband. During the Depression, Canadians made lots of money sneaking alcohol into the U.S. through tunnels and across the lax U.S.-Canadian border, a frontier of vast, remote areas interrupted by the occasional residence and farm. In some areas, the border is delineated only by a narrow trench, which is easily traversed.
In December 2000, the DEA published an intelligence brief, “B.C. Bud: Growth of the Canadian Marijuana Trade,” that said the province’s pot business had become “a billion-dollar industry” and that “traffickers smuggle a significant portion of the Canadian harvest into the United States” in everything from sod trucks to hockey-equipment bags. In 2001, the DEA opened an office in Vancouver, citing British Columbia’s marijuana trade to the U.S. as the key reason.
Meanwhile, smuggling has continued to boom, as the Hells Angels and Asian and Indo-Canadian gangs have taken over the trafficking and now outnumber law-enforcement agencies on both sides of the border. To make matters worse, in recent years a new breed of smuggler, composed mostly of enterprising blue-collar folks and yuppies looking for a fast buck, has entered the market.
By any measure, marijuana is big business in Canada — one with its own shady infrastructure. In B.C. alone, there are an estimated 12,000 grow-ops, with most of the product heading toward the border, according to law enforcement. To have a successful average-size greenhouse (100 plants), a grower needs a house, hydroponic supplies, lights, fans, seeds and labor. It can cost upwards of $100,000 to set it up. (More recently, sophisticated plant genetics have come into play that produce plants with THC levels of 30 percent.) Once that is in order, you need a “cross” or “mule” to smuggle the pot over the border. Once in the U.S., you need a connection.