A former investigator in organized crime suggests the woman arrested in Steinbach earlier this month where thousands of illicit cigarettes were seized, is a significant player in our city. 

That is according to Rick Barnum, recently retired Deputy Commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Investigations and Organized Crime command. During his 32-year career, Barnum participated in and led numerous major investigations related to organized crime groups based in Ontario and beyond. Today, Barnum is Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco. 

Barnum is referring to the arrest and seizure made on May 1st in Steinbach. As part of an ongoing drug investigation, Steinbach RCMP General Investigative Section and East District Crime Reduction Enforcement Support Team executed a search warrant at a residence in Steinbach. Officers seized methamphetamine, crack cocaine, psilocybin, six kilograms of illicit cannabis, 45,000 illicit cigarettes, a conducted energy weapon, a firearm, and over $140,000 in cash.

A 50-year-old female from Steinbach was arrested at the scene. She is facing several charges under the Criminal Code, Cannabis Act and the Tax Administration and Miscellaneous Taxes Act.

"I think what you have got there is an absolute prime example of what we're seeing happening across the country," says Barnum. "We're starting to see that contraband tobacco is certainly being picked up by organized crime groups as another mainstay in which they can make billions of dollars a year in profit."

Barnum says that even though 45,000 illicit cigarettes would be considered a "relatively small amount," you still need a network to get rid of drugs, cigarettes, and things of that nature. 

Barnum worked organized crime investigations for approximately 25 of his 32 years with OPP. He says when he hears that $140,000 in cash was seized, he knows that the individual involved is not a small player but plays a significant role in Steinbach. 

"They are tied in with other people that are counting on them to have that much money and the people above them obviously have more," he explains. "So, I see that as significant."

Barnum says what also stands out to him is that anyone responsible for $140,000 in cash is going to need to protect it. 

"So next thing you know you have the firearms and the tasers or the energy weapons," he notes. "If somebody tries to rip you off, whether it's for the drugs or the cash or whatever, violence comes hand in hand with all this stuff."

Barnum says often what is overlooked is the excellent work of police officers in making these arrests, but also the amount of damage that these criminals can do to a community.

"These people that are trafficking this stuff are just dealing so much mayhem and sometimes death into communities by spreading this stuff around," he notes. "It's the lowest of the low in my opinion."

Barnum says not only can these players place physical harm on a community, but they can also hurt taxpayers. He gives the example of Ontario, where contraband cigarettes sold through the black market have cost that province nearly $2.1 billion over the last two to three years. Barnum says this is money that is now not available to build schools or roads. 

Barnum says it bothers him when the federal government raises taxes on cartons of cigarettes. He says he has no issues with efforts to try and stop people from smoking, but Barnum notes what government is also doing is driving more people to the black market. Barnum says a carton of legitimate cigarettes could cost about $150 in Canada, while contraband might set you back only $40 per carton.

"If you are going to increase taxes on legitimate cigarettes, legitimate tobacco, then you better do something about the contraband market," he stresses. "That's the one thing that in the work that we do now, we're constantly encouraging governments not to forget that and put more money into enforcement, put more money into mechanisms to stop the sale of contraband tobacco."

Meanwhile, Barnum says there are steps that residents of Steinbach and other communities can take to try and stop the movement of illicit tobacco. He notes you can always leave an anonymous tip to Crime Stoppers or police if you know of this illegal activity. And, for those buying contraband, Barnum says it is important to realize that they are dealing directly with organized crime. 

"There is nothing about that product that's innocent," he says. "It's a highly profitable commodity and as a result, it brings all the other dangers that come along with it."

Barnum says these dangers include other types of illicit drugs and firearms.