The leader of a drug gang that imported more than 10,000 kilos of marijuana and 300,000 Ecstasy pills into the U.S. from Canada and smuggled cash payments of $25 million back to Canada from the U.S. was sentenced to 17 1/2 years behind bars yesterday.

But Benjamin Ton, 36, could have faced a life sentence under advisory sentencing guidelines, U.S. District Judge Paul S. Diamond noted, had he not cooperated in taking down his eponymous drug organization.

Authorities said Ton's cooperation was "exemplary" and resulted in charges against 21 co-defendants who were customers of Ton's, most of whom quickly pleaded guilty in the case, court papers said. (Only one of the 27 defendants charged in the case actually went to trial.)

Without Ton's cooperation, prosecutors likely would have had to try many more defendants and a trial could have taken six months, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Fritchey said.

Prosecutors recommended that Ton, who's been in federal custody since his arrest in November 2004, be sentenced to a term below the 20-year mandatory minimum for running a continuing criminal enterprise because of his cooperation. (Ton pleaded guilty to this and other offenses in September 2005 and cooperated immediately.)

Besides his jail sentence, the judge also ordered Ton to forfeit any of the $53.4 million in drug- trafficking proceeds, $24.8 million in money-laundering proceeds and his home in Sicklerville, N.J. He also received 10 years of supervised release.

Ton, who has learned to be a barber while in prison, told Judge Diamond: "I take full responsibility for my actions. There's no excuse for what I've done, and I blame no one but myself."

Authorities said the Ton organization used Philadelphia as a transshipment point for the distribution of marijuana and Ecstasy along the East Coast from December 2002 to November 2004.

Court papers said the marijuana arrived in weekly loads of 100 to 300 pounds at prices between $1,700 and $2,700 per pound, and Ecstasy pills came in loads of 40,000 to 60,000 pills in price ranges from $2.25 to $3 per pill.

The drugs were smuggled in trucks, minivans and cars.

Ton and his cohorts were overheard on wiretaps speaking in code, authorities said. Marijuana, for example, was referred to as "cakes." Ecstasy was known as "candies."

Court papers said Ton set the sales prices to be charged to his drug-dealer customers and oversaw and directed the sales and collection of payments from drug dealers here and elsewhere.

Authorities said Ton generally tried to minimize his own possession of drugs and always tried to have no more than 100 pounds of marijuana and about 5,000 Ecstasy pills at his home.

Ton, who was born in Saigon, Vietnam, and later became a naturalized U.S. citizen, quit his job as a photocopier repairman and became a full-time drug trafficker in late 2002, prosecutors said. He soon became flush with cash.

When Ton was arrested, authorities seized $200,000 in cash and bank accounts concealed in the name of his ex-wife, with whom he continued to live, as well as several luxury automobiles.