Kid Cannabis: The Wild Rise and Violent Fall of a Teenage Weed Kingpin

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According to law-enforcement officials, the sale of B.C. bud has become a $7 billion-a-year industry. Though marijuana remains illegal in Canada, the stance of the government regarding pot is far less hysterical than in the United States, with laws enforced sporadically and penalties never especially stringent. "Americans like to think they can stop this," says Donald Skogstad, a defense lawyer in British Columbia who specializes in pot cases. "The Canadian border is five times longer than the Mexican border. There is no fence, no barrier at all, just a curtain of trees. Right now, they're catching all the dumb people. That's all the Americans get. They'll never get you if you're doing it properly."

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Smugglers have buried stashes in semi trucks filled with wood chips and driven across the border. They have hidden pot in buses, in horse trailers, on trains and in mobile homes driven by gray-haired retirees. They speed across the border on snowmobiles. They kayak backwoods rivers, or fill the fiberglass hulls of yachts and sail down. They fly small planes, low, dropping their loads at agreed-upon locales  – farms, rasp-berry fields  – without landing. They have dug a 360-foot tunnel, beginning in a Quonset hut in Canada and ending in the living room of a home in Lynden, Washington. They drag their stashes underwater, behind fishing boats, so the line can be cut if an agent approaches; buoys, attached to the loads with dissolvable strips of zinc, rise to the surface the following day. They float hollowed-out logs, outfitted with GPS tracking systems, down the Kettle River. And some  – "the bravest," says Skogstad, "but not necessarily the brightest"  – hike the seven-mile border crossing, through the forest, on foot.

Once Nate hatched his smuggling plan, he and Topher realized that their first order of business would be to scrape together enough cash to make a buy. Luckily, Topher had salvaged a sunken jet boat from the lake in Coeur D'Alene and had spent the summer restoring it. To kick-start their enterprise, he dragged it to the side of the highway and sold it within minutes for $1,500.

The two friends both had big plans. Raised a Buddhist, Topher had essentially grown up on a boat, sailing the world with his free-spirit parents before they settled in Coeur D'Alene when he was fourteen. Though Topher dreamed of opening his own car-detailing shop, by the time he met Nate he was working part-time at an amusement park, living with his brother and barely scraping by.

Nate was also into cars. As a kid, he restored them with his grandfather, who became a father figure after his parents divorced and his mother moved the family to Idaho. The oldest of four children, Nate became especially protective of his mother. Despite his academic shortcomings, he was always a hard worker, his string of shitty day jobs including paper routes, telemarketing gigs and a stint at the Taco John at the mall.

"Nathaniel has always been a really good kid," insists his mother, Teresia Franks. "He'd go out of his way to help somebody. There was an old lady who lived across the street from us. Her drive-way would get blocked every time the snowplow would go by. Nathaniel would always run over and shovel her drive, and later she'd tell me that she tried to give him money and he'd say, 'No, no.'"

For their first pot run, Nate and Topher drove up to Creston, B.C., a little farming town just over the border. Once there, they hit the local bars in search of a connection. It didn't take long. "We saw this old man, and we made a hand gesture, like smoking a bowl," Topher recalls. "He just nodded his head and told us to come outside."

"You guys looking for weed?" the man asked.

The boys said yes.

"You Americans?" he asked.

The boys said yes.

"Good," the man said.

Minutes later, they were in an apartment making their first deal: $1,400 for a pound of B.C. Bud. "I put it under my arm like a football," Topher says.

Nate drove back across the border, while Topher, the designated runner, began the long hike through seven miles of thick forest. It was late afternoon. He'd changed into camouflage gear, stashing his street clothes and the pot in a backpack. It was a scary trip nonetheless. Topher was not only worried about border agents but also grizzly bears and mountain lions, and he wanted to reach U.S. territory before dark. He and Nate had bought two-way radios to arrange the pickup. They gave each other code names. Nate was Joe Blow. Topher was the Space Cowboy.

Once safely on American soil, the pair met their friends at an Outback Steakhouse and, in Topher's words, "ate like starving coyotes." Excited by the success of their first outing, they showed their friends the weed  – which was, they all had to admit, fairly skunk-looking tourist weed. "B.C. Bud is really Chronic," says Scuzz, who had been brought on board as a dealer. "This was like Cali Mexican weed."

But the quality didn't stop it from moving. Hitting the streets of Coeur D'Alene, Scuzz and the others sold it all in a couple of hours.

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