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High, neighbour!

Down a quiet cul-de-sac in suburban Quebec, police discovered large-scale marijuana cultivation in 13 neighbourhood houses. In Manitoba, an underground pot farm complex was concealed beneath a grove of trees, reports COLIN FREEZE. They're in every Canadian city and town, some run by gangs and some by industrious young cannabis devotees. Ottawa's vaunted new marijuana law won't stop them. Has the house next door gone to pot?

This story was written with files from Mark Hume in The Globe's Vancouver bureau
3,055 words
31 May 2003
The Globe and Mail
All material copyright Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. or its licensors.
All rights reserved.

The rows of metre-high plants burst with flowers. Touch the buds and a sticky, smelly resin attaches to your fingers. The connoisseurs can identify the vintage simply by bringing their hands to their noses: California Orange? Mighty Mite? Dutch Treat?

To a layman, marijuana by any other name would smell as sweet, including the Sweet Tooth variety. But for the growers here, the various strains each have unique traits, yielding distinguishable scents while growing, and idiosyncratic highs when smoked. Some brands are said to be better at stimulating appetites. Others are more esteemed as painkillers or sleeping aids.

Altogether, there are almost 400 plants of various heights and heritage inside this quiet three-level house, grown by two young roommates who live and cultivate inside the home they rent in the Toronto area. While they were eager to talk about their crop, the growers kept their real names secret (we will call them John and Steve). They had arranged for a reporter and a photographer to be driven over, blindfolded.

Much of the marijuana is concealed down in the concrete-floored basement. The rest is in a converted upstairs bedroom, filled with plants and hydroponic gear. "I have sat in this room and watched them grow. I'm not lying," said John, a skinny, short-haired 30-year-old in track pants and a T-shirt, whose bedroom is across the hall.

The plants can grow an inch a day, he said. And if you listen closely, you can almost hear a new leaf rustle open.

You can certainly catch its pungent scent. In the converted bedroom, a charcoal filter is used to keep the odour from wafting out of the vent and into the neighbourhood.

It could be any neighbourhood. The way grow operations are cropping up across Canada right now, it easily could be your neighbourhood. And from outside, you wouldn't smell a thing.

For instance, Sainte-Marthe-Sur-Le-Lac, about an hour's drive west of Montreal, is an excellent place to raise a family. On quiet streets, little girls jump rope and boys with helmets ride bikes. Adults are walking strollers when they are not out manicuring their lawns.

But not all the weed in this neighbourhood is being pulled out of the garden. A lot of it gets cultivated indoors. In January of last year, police shut down 13 indoor grow operations in a single bust, in a quiet little subdivision known as Mon Reve. A cul-de-sac with only one road leading in and out, it is probably the Canadian record holder in terms of the most grow houses shut down in a single neighbourhood all at once.

"We're now on the map," said a middle-aged man who sat on a lawn chair outside his front door.

His wife sat beside him, drinking a glass of milk. She said that despite their numbers, the growers had caused few problems. "There was no transactions here -- it's for another place," she said.

Still, the busts certainly stirred up action in their peaceful kingdom. A neighbour who was not a grower but happened to own a hydro-guzzling welding machine had to face some difficult questions.

The couple themselves found it awkward explaining to their daughter why police had arrested her friend's father.

The police cars created a panic when they busted all the grow houses, Marc Provencal recalled as he watered an evergreen tree on his lawn.

"You see cops and stuff, and they tell you to go inside. It's very scary," the father of two said.

Mr. Provencal takes a dim view of marijuana, and he had no idea that thousands of pot plants were being grown near him. "It was a shock," he said.

Karine de Bonis, on the other hand, was not surprised. Many houses had been bought up in recent years, she said, and they had long grass and no flowers, with not a kid or dog anywhere to be seen. Her suburban intuition was on the money -- police say that in several of the houses, plants were the only inhabitants.

"No city or town in Canada can claim to be absolutely free of any marijuana growing activities," reads the most recent RCMP report on cultivation.

Nationally, the force says, seizures are six times what they were in 1993, but by all accounts, that's still a tiny percentage. Canada's cannabis-cultivation culture isn't expected to stop proliferating any time soon.

While decriminalization is the most talked-about provision of the marijuana bill introduced in Ottawa this week, it would also raise penalties for growers. Penalties for simple possession would be reduced to a fine, but a large-scale cultivator who currently faces a maximum sentence of seven years in prison could get up to 14 years under the new law.

The government is trumpeting this aspect, which makes the bill sound tough on crime. But some police are already scoffing, saying the judiciary has headed in the opposite direction.

"What's 14 times nothing?" asked Sergeant Rollie Woods of the Vancouver Police drug squad. Sgt. Woods wryly explains that from what he has seen, cultivators almost never get handed any sort of jail sentence at all, let alone the maximum.

"If I saw someone get two years, or even one year, I'd be pleased as punch," he said.

Police blame these light sentences, permissive public attitudes, considerable domestic demand and the American willingness to pay a premium for made-in-Canada pot for the grow-operations boom. But there's another factor -- a bumper crop of ingenious, enterprising growers.

A Manitoban named Patrick Richardson was sentenced last year for a bizarre subterranean subterfuge, in which eight railway boxcars had been buried three metres deep and stacked side to side to form an underground pot bunker. Powered by diesel generators and hooked up to a well, the bunker was concealed above by freshly planted trees.

Mr. Richardson, who has been described as a "simpleton" by his lawyer, pleaded guilty to tending 1,400 plants. His bosses rarely let him above ground and paid him minimum wage. After pleading guilty, he was ultimately sentenced to 30 months in jail.

It's unclear why the Manitoba growers were prepared to go to such depths. Small houses in residential neighbourhoods are much more common grow-op facilities. Marijuana growers have come to appreciate the privacy afforded them once they transform better homes into gardens.

Vancouver once had the reputation of being ground zero for sophisticated indoor operations, but in recent years gardening expertise, gangs and ganja strains have been franchising eastward at a rate Starbucks would envy, and often in communities where Tim Hortons is the coffee of choice.

Pot is a growth industry in the burbs and in small-to-medium-sized cities, where houses with enclosed garages and basements are relatively affordable, and property taxes are cheap. Organized crime has played a huge but not monolithic role in expanding the enterprise. Outlaw bikers such as the Hells Angels have been at the job longest, but Vietnamese gangs' green thumbs are becoming well-known too.

Police fear that feuding gangsters will bring bloodletting to sleepy towns, but so far there seems to be enough money and common interest to go around in most cases.

For the moment, accidents and property damage involving cultivators are more common. Utility companies and real-estate agents are increasingly complaining of growers stealing electricity and rewiring houses -- badly -- as they try to cover up the large bills that can tip off law enforcement. Police in B.C. estimate that grow ops cause an average of three electrocutions a year.

Mouldy houses and toxic chemicals are another concern, as is the increasing frequency of grow-op robberies -- stealing someone else's pot is a lot quicker than growing it. So growers take many indiscriminate measures to protect their turf. Police complain of encountering booby traps during busts, ranging from concealed boards with nails in them to shotgun shells attached to trip wires.

If growers are willing to cope with all that, will longer sentences be any deterrent? There's too much money to be made. One busted home, said Sgt. Woods, was worth $600,000. It had two SUVs out front and a million dollars in cash inside, and the tenants still managed to collect GST-rebate cheques from Ottawa.

The police convoy pulled up at 10 a.m. to a house on a quiet block in East Vancouver. The neighbours were unaware that the small stucco house, with all its blinds drawn, was about to become another statistic.

A big white van, with on the back door, pulled up first, followed by three squad cars and a couple of unmarked vehicles. After a brief planning session, the 12-member police drug team sped down the street, pulled out a battering ram, and with two big thuds, blew open the locked door of a house on Adanac Street.

Vancouver police are taking a new approach to cracking down on cultivators. Relying heavily on working with citizens and building public awareness, the idea is to dismantle grow operations as fast as possible -- and if no one is home, not to waste valuable time searching for someone to charge. If they can't throw the growers in jail, the theory goes, they'll throw them in the poorhouse instead.

While police officers in black uniforms streamed in and out of the house, loading bulging garbage bags of pot into the truck, volunteers from the Collingwood Community Policing Centre began to talk to the neighbours. The volunteers always keep their Wednesdays free. That's the day the Growbusters team takes down marijuana operations.

Wes Jordan, an accountant, was among the volunteers. "People get quite worried when they see all the cops," he explained. "Most are glad to get some information from us."

Akiko Iwataki, who lives just across the street from the busted house, came to the door carrying a small lap dog. She shook her head in disbelief. "I never suspected anything at all," Ms. Iwataki said. "They've kept to themselves over there. Very quiet."

"Usually they do keep it very quiet," Mr. Jordan said, handing her a pamphlet. It gave the number of a tip line, and information about how to spot a grow op. (Telltale signs include smell, the sound of fans and condensation on the windows.)

A feisty 66-year-old grandmother named Chris Taulu, a community activist in Vancouver, spearheaded these and other efforts. She wants to encourage citizens to blow the whistle on growers.

Five years ago, a police officer invited her to go see a recently busted grow op. The trip scarred her, as she explained in a phone interview. "There was babies in the house, and those babies were sick," Ms. Taulu said. "I couldn't stand the idea that small children were living in these places -- the poison and the mould on the walls. Horrible stuff was happening to them. I got hooked then. To me, it's child abuse."

Ms. Taulu has since gone on local Vietnamese radio to get her message out, as growers from that community have a near-complete monopoly on the city's grow ops.

While she deplores marijuana, as a gateway that leads to harsher drugs, she says she still has a grudging admiration for the growers' craftsmanship.

"They grow good plants -- I mean good plants," she said. "A plant that grows good bud on it and it's green and beautiful. . . . We had one house that had one pound per plant. Now that's good."

As Growbusters wrapped up the bust on Adanac Street, they nailed a "Not Safe To Occupy" sign on the door. A police inspector looked at a clipboard he was carrying -- it seemed to have a long list of addresses.

Craig Burner, a neighbour, came across the scene as he was pushing his 22-month-old son, Quinn, in a stroller. He took it philosophically. "Where there's money, there's crime," he said. "Vancouver is not the only place people grow marijuana. It's just that we have more expertise than most."

In John and Steve's flowering room, growing marijuana is regarded as less a crime than a science. The walls are lined with silver-coloured bubble wrap that reflects the powerful lights hanging from the ceiling. They are kept on for 12 hours daily to simulate autumn growing conditions. (In the basement, where the plants are fooled into thinking that it's spring, the lights stay on for 18 hours daily.) Temperature, humidity and carbon-dioxide levels are controlled by a wall-mounted monitor.

John reads about marijuana continually, his monomania growing as fast as his plants. "It's like people who go baby crazy . . . these are our babies, 100 per cent," he says. "You start it, you water it, you nurture it. You feel very proud in the end."

John and his 25-year-old partner each hold full-time jobs, and regard marijuana cultivation as a never-ending but gratifying second vocation. It keeps them inside a lot, and they have to be careful about whom they invite over. There is always the cat, at least.

Sales, they say, are used to pay back their student loans and help to make car payments. The profits also help defray the costs of discounted pot they give to their chronically ill buyers -- some of whom have won federal government exceptions to smoke medicinal marijuana, but have no skills to grow it. "I don't know how sick people are supposed to do it," John says.

Having no such exemptions himself, he says he is aware of the risk he faces. John, who could still pass for a university student, doesn't regard himself as a criminal, and hardly looks the part. "I'm terrified of jail," he says. "But if the government wants to lock me up, then that's what they have to do. But it's a plant. That's all it is."

In the basement, those plants are being dried out, hanging from the roof like bats, attached to a metal rack with garbage-bag twist ties. "You want them to dry slowly, so the carbohydrates break down to sugars," John explains. "It makes for a softer, nicer, smoke."

He says he started growing because he didn't want to buy on the streets, saying profit-oriented crime gangs tend to move an inferior product -- the marijuana may be too wet, or full of mould or chemicals. "One of the main reason I started to grow," he said, "is I was tired of the garbage out there."

He is the talkative roommate, compared with his partner Steve. But unlike John, Steve has a criminal record. A few years ago, he says, in his early 20s, a police officer caught him with a joint. He was charged and ended up before the courts. "I went through and paid a fine for cancer research," he says.

Steve, who has been smoking marijuana since he was 14, wonders how much the court system spent to try him of charges of having $5 worth of pot. The court experience left Steve embittered and with only one big regret: He tried to conceal the charge from his parents, but they found out anyway.

"My mom just about had a heart attack," he said, somewhat bashfully.

Cultivation is already emerging as an issue that will pick up where the debate on marijuana possession, which has raged for 30 years, leaves off. In either case, as politicians dither over changes to the Criminal Code, judges and police are arriving at their own, often clashing conclusions about what enforcement measures are the most appropriate.

And meanwhile, inch by inch, leaf by leaf, pot sprouts up in Canadian houses like the three-level home that John lives in. In there, marijuana is a constant source of fascination -- the two roommates grow it, talk about it, wrap it in rolling papers, put it in a Tommy Chong bong and read up on it. Complaints about the law they are breaking are frequent.

"Where did Al Capone come from? He didn't come from intelligent laws, he came from prohibition," John said. For the record, he claimed that he pays his electricity bills.

Many of the bystanders in Canadian grow-house neighbourhoods have had similar thoughts. Michel Villeneuve moved into a former grow house in Mon Reve a year ago, with his wife, two kids, and his dog, Lucky. "It's exactly the same thing as prohibition and everything," he said. "Before the government changed the law, it was a crime. They put it legal -- everything is safe. Pot's going to be exactly the same thing."

Mr. Villeneuve said he appreciated Mon Reve's low property taxes. But governments being what they are, he said he suspects Ottawa will one day legalize marijuana and tax it. "They're going to get it," he said. "Everywhere the money is . . . they put their hand on it."

Ms. Taulu in Vancouver cheered that notion. If growers aren't going to be put in jail, the province ought to "license the hell out of them," she said. "If you charged income tax on every grow op in this city, the province of B.C. would be out of debt."

Watching the Growbusters work from the sidewalk, Mr. Burner made a similar proposal, but imagined a different outcome. "I'd like to see the government take it over and tax it," he said. "I don't think we'd have a grow-op problem if that happened."

Colin Freeze is The Globe and Mail's crime reporter. .

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