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Grow Ops Sprout Across Country


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Source: Calgary Herald (CN AB)
Author: Don Martin, For The Calgary Herald 
Published: Monday, November 03, 2003
Copyright: 2003 Calgary Herald
Contact: [email protected]

Five years ago, "offence-related material" stored in federal government warehouses pending a court verdict meant the odd seized boat, stolen car or swiped stereo system. 

Today, up to 80 per cent of the storage space is filled with hydroponic growing equipment.

This does not mean criminals have discovered the joys of healthy, home-grown vegetables.

It's all dope, all the time, a growing mountain of evidence from what police describe as a proliferation of marijuana growing operations which already exist, or are coming soon, to a neighbourhood near you.

The government is struggling to cope with the proceeds of rampant hydroponic activity, which is rapidly spreading east across Canada from its aquacultural origins in southern B.C. 

The Public Works warehouse in Edmonton is so jammed with the huge lights, fans, power generators, air conditioners, wires and tubing needed to convert a bungalow into a cannabis factory, that workers are having trouble reaching the buried cases of evidence they've been cleared by the courts to destroy. 

The cavernous 40,000-square-foot warehouse in Chilliwack, B.C., home base for the legendary 'B.C. Bud' marijuana harvest, is also nearing its functional storage capacity, an official told me this week.

The department estimates the nine warehouses cost taxpayers more than $2 million per year in operating costs linked to storing hydroponic apparatus. 

The seized material is often held for more than a year until legal proceedings are finished, just in case police have mistaken a three-metre-high cannabis stalk for a genetically modified tomato plant and are legally obliged to return the growing equipment to the owner.

Before the government was overwhelmed by the volume of material, they used to sell some equipment back to the public. It gradually occurred to the bright lights in government that anyone loading up on 1,000-watt bulbs, trays, tubing, pots and light shields might actually be using the stuff for . . . um . . . growing marijuana. 

So now the glass is crushed in garbage trucks, the plastic screens are recycled and heavy metal ballasts are sold to scrap metal dealers. 

It took me four months and the tireless intervention of Public Works communications director John Embury to secure permission for a tour of the smallest facility, a nondescript 6,000-square-foot warehouse in southeast Ottawa. 

There was only half-joking talk of being blindfolded for the ride there, lest my disclosure of the location prompt a break-in by green cannabis thumbs in need of more agricultural equipment. Suffice to say, my request for pictures was vetoed. In typical bureaucratic style, officials waited until a few days after 80 crates of growing equipment had been hauled off for sale or destruction before reluctantly opening the door to a journalist's inspection. 

Despite the housecleaning, the warehouse still contained stacks of wooden crates rising off the floor five metres high, each carefully labelled with case numbers and the name of the accused. There were even a couple of tractor lawn mowers parked inside, which suggests somebody was producing a helluva pile of grass. 

But perhaps this is being too flippant about a crime surge very clearly getting out of hand. The number of plants seized in Ontario alone has skyrocketed to 345,000 from just 3,000 stalks in 2000.

A confidential report by the Criminal Intelligence Service of Ontario, which fell into my hands, quickly dispels the quaint notion of home-ops as mom-and-pot operations, growing recreational drugs for local consumption.

A $25,000 investment in equipment can grow 600 plants twice a year, each worth $1,000 retail, and the penalty for being caught is usually measured in a few months of incarceration, not years. 

It's increasingly viewed as an organized crime racket where upscale executive homes are converted into multi-level pot-producing factories powered by stolen electricity or buried generators, the harvest aimed primarily for export to the United States. 

The signs of a grow-op should theoretically be easy to spot, which doesn't say much for my detection abilities after I failed to detect a grow-op dismantled right behind my Ottawa home. 

There'll be a garage to facilitate the loading of product into trucks or cars and a fireplace to air out the dwelling. But you'll also notice the new neighbours, if any, keep very much to themselves, the windows are blacked out and the roof is the first to shed snow. Take a whiff during a walk around the block at night and you might catch operators trying to air out the dwelling of pungent fumes.

If the fear factor of a pot-possession criminal record is eliminated, demand will rise and the hydroponic market will go even more hyperactive. 

For the federal government, that comes with a hidden cost -- they'll need to rent more warehouses.

Don Martin is the Herald's Ottawa bureau chief.

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