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Marijuana Grow Ops Raise Cash for Crime, and The Ire of Police


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Source: Calgary Herald (CN AB)
Author: Linda Slobodian, Calgary Herald 
Published: Friday, March 05, 2004
Copyright: 2004 Calgary Herald
Contact: [email protected]

Calgary's homegrown pot industry provides vast sums of money for an array of criminal enterprises

It's just pot. An innocent little weed. Really relaxing. Hardly hardcore stuff. And highly recommended for medicinal purposes. Funding police efforts to crack down on marijuana is simply a waste of taxpayers dollars.

Those declarations are what devout users -- who may not be looking past the smoke twirling off the end of the joint stuck in their lips -- trot out in their unfaltering, religious-like defence of marijuana.

Others, such as law enforcement officials, grimly view the overall impact of marijuana -- a vital means of providing copious sums of seed money to the organized crime world -- as a poison seeping into the community.

They claim its tentacles reach out to cause a ripple effect -- one laced with violence, a glut of other illegal drugs on the streets, a string of diverse criminal activities and, in the end, countless victims and heartbreak.

Whatever one believes, there is no disputing the fact a specialized police team is in constant pursuit of illegal marijuana crops sprouting up with a greedy vengeance in homes throughout the city. They simply cannot get to them all.

Organized crime groups reap huge profits from low-cost, low-risk marijuana grow operations and use those profits to fund other illegal ventures, such as the production, importation and sale of cocaine, crack and methamphetamine (speed).

"Grow operations are a major contributor to financing organized crime," said Calgary Police Service drug unit Staff Sgt. Trevor Daroux, head of the Southern Alberta Marijuana Investigative Team (SAMIT).

SAMIT -- a joint forces operation comprised of members of the Calgary Police Service, RCMP and Criminal Intelligence Service of Alberta -- was formed last December in response to marijuana grow ops identified across the country as thriving ventures wreaking havoc in terms of criminal activity, public health and safety.

This year in Calgary, 13,500 marijuana plants with an estimated street value of $18 million have been seized by the police Green Team, which relies heavily on tips from the public -- 415 tips last year.

Two months into the year, that's on par with $18 million worth of plants in 2002 and compares with $9 million seized in 2001 and $54 million last year.

Police admit they are only putting a dent in marijuana grow operations that cost at most $10,000 to set up and fill entire houses with elaborate crops tenderly cultivated.

On Dec. 30, 2003, police found 2,100 plants in a northwest home valued at more than $3 million -- the biggest haul from a Calgary home-based operation.

In 2003, one grow house averaging three crops a year yielded profits between $500,000 to $700,000, said Calgary Det. Chris Fileccia, stressing his estimate leans heavily on the conservative side.

"A conservative average is three ounces per plant," he said.

Lately, grow operations busted by police have averaged 300 plants per grow -- but as many as 1,300 -- netting a street value of up to $250 an ounce.

There is no lack of a layer of criminals -- from the top men to the crop sitters to the couriers -- willing to supply the demand, particularly south of the border, where there is an insatiable hunger for high-potency B.C. Bud.

Drug cultivators shamelessly peddle Calgary's homegrown marijuana under that coveted brand name. Considering the comparable high quality -- no one suspects they are really smoking Calgary Bud.

Each pound of Calgary dope fetches a rather handsome price in American dollars -- and keeps U.S. law enforcement officials from coast to coast busy.

Free trade takes on its own special meaning in the illegal narcotics world.

Prized Canadian dope is valued on par with cocaine from the U.S., trading pound for pound at anywhere from $6,000 to $9,000 US, said Calgary police Det. Pat Tetley. That compares with $2,000 Cdn a pound local users pay.

U.S. efforts to stem the flow of Canadian dope have resulted in numerous drug smuggling charges -- and a plea this week from the Seattle district attorney's office to Washington state judges to keep Canadians locked up pending trial.

Nearly 27 per cent of Canadians jump bail and flee back home, where they are safe from U.S. arrest warrants and harsher American penalties, which start at five years in jail.

In comparison, Calgary courts are extremely lenient.

"A cultivator usually gets off with a conditional sentence," said Tetley.

He did recall a seven-year sentence handed down to a grow operator in the early '90s in Sundre. "That involved 12 houses."

Canadian dope smuggling has not escaped the attention of Montana law officials.

"Most of our narcotics arrests along the border have been B.C. Bud. We commonly refer to B.C. Bud as anything that's grown in Canada," said Mark Kemp, with the U.S. Border Patrol in Havre, Mont., 200 kilometres from the Coutts, on the Alberta-Montana border.

"We don't differentiate between a Calgary variety and a B.C. variety. I'm not sure what the difference is between Calgary Bud and B.C. Bud. It's all high-quality, high-potency, very expensive, very sought after," he said.

"A lot of it has to do with the market. There certainly is a market in the United States for it and in other countries where it may go from here," he said.

The Border Patrol is responsible for everything in between each of the six ports of entry along the Alberta-Montana border, which stretches about 300 kilometres.

"After 21 years on the southern border, I can tell you that I saw every conceivable way of smuggling narcotics into this country that you can imagine. Everything from aircraft traffic to huge, false compartments in 18-wheelers to false compartments in small cars, big trucks," said Kemp.

Trying to thwart the efforts of drug smugglers is risky business.

In Calgary, police always find weapons -- bats, machetes, knives and the odd gun -- in the booby-trapped houses they storm that are becoming increasingly more fortified, said Fileccia.

Along the border, patrols always prepare for the worst.

"We have not had any shootouts, per se, up to this point in time," Kemp said.

"We consider every encounter with narcotic smugglers to have the potential for violence. I think we would be foolish not to. Our agents are all veteran agents coming off the Mexican border, they know how to deal with these situations."

In the remote regions along the border, 18-wheelers hauling illegal cargos of dope stick out like 747s. Smaller vehicles and backpackers draw less attention -- and they are the ones usually caught, albeit, not that often.

"Yeah, we're catching a backpacker or two every once in awhile. And, yeah, we're catching a four-wheel-drive that comes across in the middle of nowhere every once in awhile. We don't routinely see an 18-wheeler coming across the prairie looking for a dirt road to come into the United States . Number 1, it sticks out like a sore thumb," said Kemp.

"When you start talking commercial size loads, we're not dealing with that currently between the ports of entry," he said.

Since 2001, the U.S. Border Patrol has seized a total of 273 kilograms of marijuana that couriers were attempting to move from Canada into the United States.

"Most of them we didn't know about a week ahead of time. Sometimes it's just luck. Sometimes it is well-intentioned plans and we just lay and wait for it," said Kemp.

Drug smuggling, primarily marijuana, has joined terrorism and the problem of illegal aliens on the top priority list in the past couple of years, he said.

"That's one of the topics that's regularly covered in our joint (Canada-U.S.) intelligence meetings. I know there's increased efforts on Canada's part," said Kemp.

Meanwhile, Great Falls, Mont., has earned the nasty distinction of being a hub for the distribution of methamphetamines.

"Powdered meth is traded straight for B.C. bud," said Det. Donny Gerhart, with the Great Falls police department.

"Powdered meth goes for $12,000 to $15,000 a pound."

Authorities there have managed to link methamphetamines with the Kinsmen outlaw motorcycle gang, which is a puppet club for the Hells Angels. On this side of the border, the law points its finger at a number of organized crime groups.

In the Criminal Intelligence Service Alberta semi-annual report -- April to September 2003 -- there is no mention of a link between grow operations and outlaw motorcycle gangs.

However, the report notes that of three Hells Angels' Alberta chapters, "many members are currently involved in the supply of cocaine and methamphetamine (speed)."

Looking at activities beyond Alberta's borders, Det. Brad Robson, Calgary police outlaw biker expert, isn't quick to dismiss Hells Angels involvement in marijuana grow operations.

"We do know that in British Columbia grows have been controlled by the Hells Angels. I would be a fool not to think that there are grows in Alberta that are definitely controlled by the Hells Angels," said Robson. "It's all about making money, wherever they can make the bang for their buck."

Calgary's Hells Angels declined to comment.

According to the CISA report, which says there are 24 organized crime groups of major concern in the province, Asian criminal groups "continue to be the most serious organized crime threat" in Alberta.

"A number of marijuana grow operations that have been dismantled in the Calgary area can be attributed to Asian criminals," said the report.

The law is also keeping tabs on involvement by Eastern European, primarily Russian, organized crime groups.

So, how do these groups all get along vying for their piece of the same pie?

"Probably in Western Canada there's a pact between the Asians or the Russians or the bikers. Right now, I wouldn't say it's a working agreement, but they tolerate each other. They have their product, they have their area, territory, they look after it and run it," said Robson. "Your other organized groups probably have the same product, maybe a different price in the same areas. They're just working around it right now. Time will tell even on that."

As far as SAMIT's Daroux is concerned "there's a number of organized groups that concern us."

As do the ripple effects of assorted crimes that swirl around these thriving illegal operations.

"There isn't a community, there isn't a city, there isn't a town that's immune to the effects of organized crime. Marijuana grow operations serve to enhance the strength of organized crime," said Daroux.

"What we're seeing is a lot of the times the profits that are made by these marijuana grow operations, they do two things. One, the marijuana grow operations service the supply of the illicit drug," said Daroux.

"But also they fund other organized criminal ventures, such as the importation and manufacturing of cocaine, crack cocaine and methamphetamine."

Indeed, a lot more than the marijuana is peddled boldly in public places such as Olympic Plaza right under the nose of City Hall. On Calgary streets, marijuana costs $200 to $250 per ounce. Powdered cocaine, crack and methamphetamine all retail at between $80 to $100 per gram.

In 2003 in Calgary, police laid 1,794 drug offence charges, 45.7 per cent of them for possession. And 54.3 per cent were for trafficking, possession, cultivation and production, importation and exportation.

So far this year, of 624 charges, 35 per cent involved crack and cocaine, 59 per cent marijuana and six per cent all other drugs.

"The biggest problem marijuana gives us is funding other drugs. You can't argue the social dilapidation, the destruction," said Daroux.

"I've had people phoning my office crying. A 40-year-old man phoned me and said 'Two years ago, I had a family, I had a job, I had a house, I had vehicles. I have nothing now, I have nothing because of this drug (crack). And I can't stop.' "

So where do the users get the money to feed their habits?

"We have no statistics to tell us that this crime was caused as a result of an addiction. I think you can look at the fact that for an 18-year-old person to sustain a $1,000-a-day or even a $500-a- day habit is almost impossible through legitimate means," said Daroux.

"One would have to say you can make the extrapolation that they turn to illegitimate means to support their habits."

Break and enters, home invasions, prostitution, armed robberies, illegal weapons, auto theft, theft of stereos and other goods from vehicles and a host of other crimes can be attributed to a need for cash for drugs.

But when it comes to making quick money, there sometimes is no honour among thieves who view ripping off grow operations -- often violently -- run by other criminals as an attractive option.

How does one measure the toll of drug addiction and child neglect or rehabilitation costs?

Police say it is impossible to put a figure on policing costs and even medical costs footed by taxpayers that are associated with a variety of ills linked to drug use and grow operations that breed toxic mould in homes.

Police officers, wary of the health risks, wear respirators and coveralls to protect themselves when going in to clear out homes and buildings used for grow ops.

"If you look at your residences where we're finding these grow operations, the devaluation of your houses, the stealing or theft of electricity . . . we're all faced with paying for those costs as well," said Daroux.

The ripple effect is so widespread and intense that dealing with grow operations cannot be "solely a police initiative," said Daroux.

"We are seeking to work with a number of different agencies. Financial institutions are one of them. I think we're relying very heavily on our partner agencies, other agencies we're working with both in the private and the public sector.

"We've been approached by various organizations saying 'We want to help. Not because we have something to gain but because it's the right thing to do,' " said Daroux.

RCMP Staff Sgt. Dave Mackay, unit commander of the Rocky Mountain Integrated Border Enforcement Team in Raymond, Alta., declined to be specific about marijuana involvement, citing ongoing investigations.

"A lot of dope goes east across Canada, then south. The people who smuggle very often do that between the ports of entry," said Mackay.

The multi-agency law enforcement team set up in September 2002 is comprised of the RCMP, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the Canada Border Services Agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"A lot of what's there is routed, say from a place like Calgary to the Okanagan area in eastern B.C., then it crosses into the U.S.

"It's an industry. They are using air, rail, trucking, passenger vehicles, everything to deliver the product to the U.S. side. In order to move any contraband across the border, every means possible is utilized by the perpetrators," said Mackay, adding that smugglers use aircraft to fly across and dump their cargo.

"We have access to low-ground level radar. We have access to helicopters, aircraft," said MacKay.

The devastating and "profound" impact of the drug on society is not to be underestimated, he said.

"How many fatal accidents on the highway might be actually tied to THC content? You have your increase in accidents, your hit and runs, your increased costs of insurance," said MacKay.

No one has yet properly addressed the issue of how to determine if a person is driving while impaired under the influence of marijuana.

He is skeptical of claims of plummeting crime rates, many linked to marijuana, both in Canada and the U.S.

"You have Stats Canada saying crime is going down. Is the Insurance Bureau of Canada saying crime is going down? Are they increasing rates? If crime is going down, why are insurance rates going up?" said Mackay.

He wonders if crime is actually dropping or whether it is a lack of reporting capabilities and sufficient police officers.

Medical experts say the toxicity of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) -- which among other things leads to addiction, learning and memory problems -- has long been underestimated. Marijuana is not the drug it once was. New growth methods have increased the levels of THC.

"Back in the '60s, the THC level of marijuana was at two and three per cent and many of them started using marijuana. The latest statistics -- we have marijuana grown in Alberta that was 35 per cent THC level. You're usually selling on the market now about 10 or 15 per cent. It is now addictive," said Calgary Police Chief Jack Beaton. Despite that, a Health Canada study released last fall discovered that smoking dope is "mainstream" among teenagers -- hitting levels not seen since the 1970s.

About 54 per cent of 2,000 teens aged 12 to 19 years surveyed said they inhaled more than once. Some 34 per cent of 12 to 14-year-olds said they smoked dope. Like tobacco, the smoke injures lung tissue and can cause cancerous tumours.

Even the Marijuana Party of Alberta declares in its mission statement that "one must be of the minimum age of 18 to consume marijuana or grow marijuana -- unless extenuating circumstances apply."

However, citing the principles of democracy and the rule of law, the party wants an end to the "barbaric war on marijuana" and recommends the removal of all provincial funding for the enforcement of marijuana prohibition.

Instead, it would like to see provincial dollars diverted to "better use, such as stopping terrorism or enhancing social health and education programs."

The party reasons that "would save Alberta many millions if not billions in health, prison, court and policing costs, and would also bring in billions if not trillions of dollars in the manufacturing, agriculture, paper, health, food, tourist and other such industries."

Beaton tersely dismissed the party's stand.

"They have a vested interest. I would like to hear someone from that party that doesn't smoke marijuana talk intelligently about an issue," he said.

Complete Title: Marijuana Grow Ops Raise Cash for Crime, and The Ire of Police

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