DRUG OFFICERS WEED OUT POT
"It doesn't matter in our operation if there's one ( marijuana ) plant or a 1,000 ( marijuana plants )"
The three men never knew what hit them. With a helicopter hovering overhead, a barking and growling German shepherd staring them down, and three heavily-armed OPP officers blocking them, they simply had no place to go but police custody.
Six hundred and fifty nearby marijuana plants -- neatly arranged in plastic pails amongst the pine and cedar trees in a secluded wooded lot near Smiths Falls -- were mature and ready for harvest.
A sophisticated system of hoses and pumps irrigated the dope crop, pumping water from the surrounding swamp onto the well-nurtured plants.
But for the 15 OPP drug enforcement officers assigned to rid eastern Ontario's fields, forests and swamps of pot, it was time for this crop's growing season to come to an abrupt halt before the marijuana could hit the streets.
"It doesn't matter in our operation if there's one plant or a 1,000," said OPP helicopter pilot Scott Ross, who has become an expert at spotting the leafy green marijuana plants from a few hundred feet in the air as part of the provincial police's drug eradication program. In his 10 years as a pilot, Ross has learned to watch for an almost neon green colour.
"Once you get good at it you can pick out individual plants," he said. "There is nothing growing naturally that I know of in the province of Ontario that is that shade of green."
Last year, the OPP drug eradication program removed 110,385 marijuana plants from across Ontario.
The drug enforcement unit expects to top that number this year. A record bust at a pot plantation in Lanark County in early September uncovered more than $9-million worth of marijuana.
Eastern Ontario has become a hot spot for pot growers. According to OPP statistics, more than half of the weed collected by OPP drug officers in 1999 came from the eastern half of the province, with about 35,000 plants from the Ottawa and Kingston areas alone.
"It's Getting Worse"
"Every year we find it's getting worse," said Det. Sgt. John Sullivan, who heads up the eastern region eradication program. Only a day before stumbling upon their 650-plant discovery, drug enforcement officers packed a 20-foot cube van to its roof with the illicit leaves from a crop near Bancroft. If the truck's cargo was cash, it would need to be an armoured car -- the more than 4,500 plants had a street value of almost $5 million.
No criminals will ever see the cash though, as the load is bound to be burned.
Helicopter surveillance, which makes short work of exposing plantations, is key to the program's success.
In the summer, the OPP dedicates its two choppers to the drug eradication program, and leases a third with money out of the criminals' own pockets in the form of a $313,000 grant from a government proceeds-of-crime fund.
Sweeps are hit-and-miss, although informants often provide tips as to where the helicopter should search.
In addition to the highly-visible vegetation, helicopter spotters are also watching for watering cans, plastic drums, tools, or anything else which seems out of the ordinary.
"When you fly acres and acres of cornfields and you see a patch cut out, you know what it is," Sullivan said. "The farmer didn't go and plant some tomatoes."
"Harder To Detect"
And most often the farmer or land owner is the unsuspecting victim, left startled when the long line of OPP vehicles descends on their property to wipe out a pot patch.
With a marijuana plant's growing season shorter than corn's, most cultivators have already cleared out their illegal crops before the land owner evens knows it's there.
"They're trying to make it harder to detect," Sullivan said. "We're not often finding 400 or 500 plants together. They're planting 10 here and 15 there. Gone are the days where you'll find a 1,000 plants." Sullivan said growers are getting more creative in how they protect their crops, both from police and drug poachers, who cash in with someone else's plantation.
While the drug officers avoided booby traps in Lanark County, nasty surprises often await them in the bush.
Tearing out marijuana plants in Bancroft, officers were sliced by razor blades attached to plant stalks, threatened by fish hooks dangling at eye level from tree branches and stabbed by hidden boards with rusty six-inch nails -- coated with infectious fish guts -- sticking out of the ground.
"You really have got to be on your toes," said one undercover officer. "You can't just walk into the bush and smell. You don't know what you're running into."
At a recent bust in Kemptville, officers discovered five occupied tents within walking distance of the 3,300-plant crop. After arresting four people, police searched the area and uncovered a loaded shotgun, .22- calibre rifle and three high-powered replica .357 Magnum pellet guns.
Finding loaded weapons and people willing to use them is becoming increasingly common, Sullivan said.
"There's no longer that lackadaisical approach where we're walking in and taking someone's plants," Sullivan said.
"We need to protect our lives."
And even though the drug eradication program is only destroying a fraction of the estimated five million pot plants grown across Canada annually, the OPP has no intention to quit nipping the drug trade in the bud.
"We're not getting them all, but I feel good we've taken $100-million worth of product off the streets that isn't making it to the schools and society," Sullivan said.
"What we're taking off today is saving us in the future."