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Police on Grow-ops: Don't You Believe It


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Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)
Author: Dan Gardner, The Ottawa Citizen
Published: Tuesday, March 2, 2004
Copyright: 2004 The Ottawa Citizen
Contact: [email protected]

On Thursday, a fraud will be committed in Toronto, but there's no point in calling the police to stop it. The police are the perps.

The scene of the "crime" will be a high-profile "summit" organized by the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP) and Ontario's Ministry of Community Safety to discuss ways to fight marijuana grow-ops. The summit follows the release last December of an OACP report that goes by the paperback-thriller title of Green Tide.

The main claims of the summit and the report are familiar to anyone who follows the news. Grow-ops are "exploding" all over the province, even in suburban neighbourhoods. They are illegally and dangerously wired into electrical lines. They are booby-trapped. Kids are endangered by living in or near them. Most of the grow-ops are run by organized crime. And, say the police to any reporter who will listen, this is all happening because the laws are too soft and the cops don't have the resources to fight back.

It's obvious where this is going: The police want more money and power. Given the blatant self-interest involved, one might think politicians and journalists would examine police claims with due skepticism. Alas, no. The media have repeated every police statement as if it were disinterested fact. Politicians, too, have blithely followed the lead of the police: The latest is Monte Kwinter, Ontario's Liberal minister of Community Safety, who has promised to push the federal government for tougher sentences.

This blind trust isn't warranted. Much of what the police are saying about grow-ops is unproven or exaggerated. Some of it is false. Most importantly, it carefully overlooks the root cause of the problem. Combined, this amounts to a grand fraud.

* Is there an epidemic of grow-ops? The only empirical proof the police have offered to back this central claim is the Green Tide report, which contains data showing impressive growth in the number of grow-op busts in Ontario. But as every criminology student knows, more busts does not necessarily mean more crime. It can also be the result of increased police effort. The question is how much of the growth in busts is the result of greater police effort and how much reflects a real increase in the number of grow-ops. Answer: No one knows.

In fact, the Green Tide report itself notes this key fact in a large "caveat" on the first page and again in the main text. But as far as I can tell, the police chiefs never mention this in interviews. Instead, they flatly claim the report proves there is an epidemic of grow-ops. And that is simply false.

* Is it controlled by organized crime? The Green Tide report struggles to support the claims of top police officers that the grow-ops are "mostly" or "largely" or "mainly" controlled by organized crime, but still its conclusions are much less emphatic. It is "likely" that organized crime controls "at least part of" the trade, the report says, and organized crime is "suspected" of being "largely behind the emergence of the grow-ops." In other words, there is little proof for this big claim.

And beware of a semantic shell game involving the definition of "organized crime." The public thinks the term means the Mafia, biker gangs and other major bad guys. But the law defines organized crime as any group of five or more working together over time to commit crime. That means five ordinary guys who grow pot in a suburban basement and sell it to friends are "organized crime." Whenever the police issue scary warnings about organized crime, they should say which definition they are using. If they don't, be skeptical.

* Are sentences too soft? It's true that sentences for growing marijuana are much tougher in the U.S. than in Canada. But what the police don't say is that tougher sentences have had little or no effect on American pot production. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates Americans grow 5,500 to 16,700 tonnes of marijuana a year -- compared to an estimated 800 tonnes a year in Canada.

And consider another fact the police don't mention: The number of illegal methamphetamine labs in the U.S. has exploded over the last few years despite the brutal sentences offenders get for running a meth lab. Decades of experience like this proves tough sentences cannot dent the drug trade.

* Why do grow-ops exist? This is the core question, and yet it's one the police never touch. Marijuana can be grown in any window, right beside the geraniums. It can be grown in any field. So why is it being grown in rickety, dangerous operations? Because it's illegal, of course. And why do criminals make money growing pot, and not, say, geraniums? Because pot is illegal and geraniums are not. And why does the growing of pot involve booby-traps and ... You see what I'm getting at. Just as alcohol prohibition put illegal stills in residential neighbourhoods, marijuana prohibition put grow-ops in the suburbs.

The police and the criminal law are not the solution to the problem; they are the problem.

Dan Gardner is a Citizen senior writer.

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