Grow Ops—An Inside Look
What—and who—lurks behind closed doors across our nation?
BY IAN HARVEY
The suburban bungalow in northeast Toronto looks like its neighbours, but when the Toronto Police Service’s East Drug Squad smash through the door on a rainy evening in February, it’s quickly apparent things are not what they seem.
I slip in behind the grow-lab team after they arrest a dark-haired, pockmarked 32-year-old who was in his living room watching TV. Police have given the all-clear after checking the barely furnished place for booby traps such as electrified metal doorknobs or leg-breaking bear traps, often used by growers to discourage intruders. In the hallway, the heat hits me like a wall—it’s a humid 25°C. Two of the three bedrooms are plant nurseries, with plastic sheeting on the floor and walls, obscuring the windows. Small marijuana plants, about three weeks old, are in neat rows under searing 1,000-watt lights.
That’s nothing compared with what we find in the 1,000-square-foot basement: It’s a sea of green, where 845 waist-high plants are in the early stages of bloom under some 50 lights that illuminate almost every square inch of space. In another three to four weeks, the plants would have matured to produce 84 kilos of high-potency weed.
“Here, look,” says Det. Sgt. Jim Qualtrough, handing me a face mask to protect me from inhaling mould spores and chemicals, and UV-filter safety glasses that will guard my eyes from the superbright lights. “They’ve drilled a 25-centimetre hole through the foundation and bypassed the hydro meter.” In introducing anti-grow-op legislation last fall, Ontario politicians fingered hydro theft—estimated at $85 million a year in Ontario alone—as one of the hidden costs we all pay for commercial grow ops. Over 60 days, this guy stole a whopping $9,338 worth of hydro.
Police check the lone grower’s record and find previous convictions for cultivating—one in Quebec in 1993, for which he got a conditional discharge, the other in Barrie, Ont., in 2003, resulting in a nine-month jail term. Tonight’s haul is probably worth $845,000 on the street; the grower likely stood to score about $50,000 wholesale, less $20,000 in costs. With several crops a year, that’s about $200,000 tax-free cash for a year’s work. Like most of the product produced in large commercial grow ops, it probably would have ended up in the United States, where Canadian pot accounts for two percent of pot seized at borders. (Mexico is the No. 1 foreign supplier.)
It’s another night on the job for the crew who will shut down this lab before shift’s end. There’s plenty of work to go around. In 2004 Toronto police took down 320 marijuana grow operations—about 110,000 plants—and they’ve barely made a dent. Ontario’s Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister, Monte Kwinter, calls it a “billion-dollar-a-year business.” And these operations exist in the thousands in cities, suburbs and rural areas across Canada. Police and courts in this country spend up to $500 million a year on pot enforcement.
“Marijuana accounts for up to five percent of the GDP in British Columbia alone,” says Stephen Easton, a professor of economics at Simon Fraser University. That means the infamous “B.C. bud” is worth more than the mining, oil and gas, and logging industries. In a 2004 report for the Fraser Institute, titled “Marijuana Growth in British Columbia,” Easton estimated there were 17,500 grow labs in British Columbia alone, producing pot worth up to $7 billion. The number of British Columbia grow ops busted by police more than doubled between 1997 and 2000, from 1,251 to 2,808. “So it’s reasonable to speculate the number of grow ops has also more than doubled,” says Easton.
In another suburb north of Toronto, I visit a grow op of the mom-and-pop variety. There, “Herb” is tending to his 50 or so plants tucked away under four 1,000-watt bulbs. Of the eight kilos a year from his three crops, what he doesn’t smoke he wholesales to the Toronto Compassion Centre, which dispenses marijuana to those with a medical prescription. He charges only enough to cover overhead such as hydro, which costs up to $250 a month.
“Let’s go meet the ‘children,’” Herb says, leading me to the basement and two two-by-three-metre areas where fans cool the air. There’s no oppressive humidity, in contrast to the commercial lab. Herb’s lab is in a corner, well ventilated, legitimately on the hydro meter and safely wired by a licensed electrician.
Herb has smoked pot daily for the past eight years, ever since a stress meltdown at his high-level, white-collar job left him on disability. He points to a letter from Health Canada on the wall recognizing his medical use of marijuana. His family—including a 15-year-old daughter—support his pot-growing enterprise.
Herb and his family are not alone in their attitude. A 2004 poll by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) found that 57 percent of Canadians supported legalization of marijuana. Only eight percent called for criminal charges and jail time for those caught in possession. And 53 percent supported taxing and regulating marijuana in the same way as alcohol or tobacco.
But if pending legislation Bill C-17 becomes law, Herb would likely be classified as a commercial grower no different from the convicted criminal who ran the lab I’d seen earlier, and he’d be liable for a 14-year jail term under strict new provisions.
Pot proponents maintain that Bill C-17 turns the clock back to a harsher time. John Conroy, an Abbottsford, B.C., lawyer and president of NORML, says stiffer sentences will “play into the hands of organized crime, who will pay people to grow it. Prohibition has driven grow ops into residential communities to hide out.”
At the other end of the scale of opinion, Gwen Landolt, national vice-president of REAL Women of Canada, a lobby group on family values issues, says even simple possession should be dealt with more harshly. “Criminal penalties for pot possession should include criminal records because it’s a deterrent factor.”
One thing all sides do agree on is that organized-crime-driven grow ops should be shut down.
The subject of grow labs is a touchy one with Pickering-Scarborough East Liberal MP Dan McTeague.
His Toronto-area riding is mostly sprawling suburbs where large homes and anonymity attract commercial growers. Grow labs, he says, destroy homes and threaten neighbourhoods.
“It’s very disturbing. There’s something like 10,000 in the greater Toronto area and 50,000 across Canada, probably more,” says McTeague. “Organized criminals use their earnings to import cocaine, guns and other problems.”
His neighbours to the northwest in the York Region have the same problem. York comprises 1,756 square kilometres and is policed by 1,100 officers. There are enough grow ops to keep them busy executing warrants daily if they had the resources. In 2004 they averaged more than two search warrants a week.
And, as in McTeague’s riding, large grow ops bring gangs and other criminals into neighbourhoods. “There have been homicides, home invasions and shootings related to grow ops,” says York Regional Police Det. Sgt. Karen Noakes of the Drugs and Vice Enforcement Bureau.
While grow-op busts make big headlines, the growers themselves usually get away with a slap on the wrist. According to a study released in March titled “Marijuana Growing Operations in British Columbia Revisited,” by Darryl Plecas, a criminology professor at University College of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, B.C., there were 25,014 cases that came to the attention of police between 1997 and 2003. In 54 percent of cases where police found pot on the scene, they took no action, usually because there were no suspects or there were less than ten plants. Of those found guilty, only about 16 percent received prison sentences. The average sentence was just under five months.
NORML’s Conroy says that’s hardly surprising. “The courts on a daily basis see assaults and crimes that cause harm to others or society as a whole,” he says. “It’s hard to expect a judge to see this as being more serious as it is a paternalistic law, one that’s there to protect us from ourselves.”
I’m strapped into the back seat of York Regional Police’s Eurocopter EC120B with Const. Michael Boris and pilot Jared Blowers. It’s clear but frosty cold outside as the chopper lifts off from Buttonville Airport just north of Toronto and veers into the night. I’m here to see first-hand the use of FLIR, a high-tech infrared system that can detect unusual amounts of heat pouring out of buildings, indicating commercial grow labs.
“There, that looks like one,” Boris says, and we hover 365 metres over a huge house in a neighbourhood so new it’s not even in the map book. Boris points to his screen. “See the white spots and lines? That’s heat.”
Police can use FLIR only as a tool; they must still gather evidence for a search warrant through traditional methods of surveillance and investigation. And most grow-op busts are still the result of good old-fashioned police work. Such was the case in the arrest of Phu Minh Luu, 31, and his associates in April 2004.
“We’d see them go to bed at 3 a.m. and then they’d be up at 8 a.m., on the phone making deals,” Peel Regional Det. Kevin O’Rahilly said of the investigation. Luu, a Vietnamese Canadian, lived in an expensive Mississauga home, had luxury cars and a lavish lifestyle, yet had no apparent job. Turns out he was part of a two-family organization buying marijuana at $3,300 to $4,000 a kilo from Canadian growers and selling it for $5,800 to $6,100 a kilo in several U.S. states.
He and his fellow gang members were churning out close to $1 million a month when, after a six-month investigation involving a coalition of federal, provincial and U.S. authorities, Peel police arrested them at their residences. Over the course of the investigation, police seized 330 kilos of compressed high-grade Canadian pot. Luu and his wife, Melissa Le, 30, pleaded guilty to trafficking and were sentenced to jail for eight years and 21û2 years respectively in October 2004. Police report seizing $7.6 million worth of assets from the organization, including five vehicles, six houses and jewellery.
As I was finishing this article, I heard the news about the four RCMP officers slain outside Mayerthorpe, Alta. The officers were gunned down by a violent man with a long history of armed confrontation while they backed up the local bailiff serving an order to seize the man’s pickup truck for nonpayment. The gunman had on his property stolen car parts and a small grow op. The emotional and angry reactions to the senseless killings further politicized and polarized the marijuana debate and refocused it on grow operations.
No one wants a commercial grow op next door any more than they want an illicit distillery there. And taking the profit of pot away from organized criminals like Luu is a common goal of both pro- and anti-marijuana groups.
So the question for all Canadians is, How would we have the law separate the Herbs from the Luus? How can organized-crime-driven grow operations be prevented while still allowing Canadians who choose to smoke marijuana—or need to smoke it for medical reasons—to provide for themselves and others without risking jail and a criminal record?
In other words, how should the law draw the line between personal choice and those who would criminally exploit us?
Has your opinion on pot law changed?
While few are happy with the associated criminal element, most Canadians believe adults who use marijuana should not be criminalized, according to a national opinion poll by NORML. So where do we draw the line? Let us know how you feel about the proposed pot laws.
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Making a Small Dent
In 2002 police across Canada launched Operation Greensweep, an attack on grow ops. They executed nearly 600 search warrants, arresting nearly 600 people on more than 1,300 charges, and seized approximately $200 million in plants.
A Senate Committee Weighs In
In 2002 the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs
declared prohibition of marijuana pointless. “Scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates cannabis is substantially less harmful than alcohol and should be treated not as a criminal issue but as a social and public-health issue,” said Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, chair of the special committee. “We have come to the conclusion that, as a drug, it should be regulated much as is wine and beer.”
Highlights of Bill C-17
• Possession of up to 15 grams of pot (15 to 30 joints): punishable by a ticket with a $150 fine, or $100 for a minor.
• Possession of 15 to 30 grams: A police officer decides whether the person should receive a ticket or a summons for a summary conviction. The ticket fine would be $300 for an adult, $200 for a minor; the summary conviction penalty is up to six months imprisonment and/or a fine of up to $1,000.
• The parent or guardian of
anyone under 18 would be notified that the minor has received a ticket or has been charged.
• More than three but less than 26 plants: Maximum punishment is an indictable offence and up to five years imprisonment less a day; or, by summary conviction, a maximum fine of $25,000 or imprisonment for up to 18 months, or both.
• More than 25 but fewer than 51 plants: Maximum punishment
is an indictable offence and up
to ten years imprisonment.
• More than 50 plants: Maxi-mum punishment is an indictable offence and up to 14 years
Source: Justice Canada
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