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'It's Not Just Weed'

 

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Source: Montreal Gazette (CN QU)
Author: William Marsden, The Gazette 
Published: Saturday, September 18, 2004
Copyright: 2004 The Gazette, a division of Southam Inc.
Contact: [email protected] 
Website: http://www.montrealgazette.com/

Every harvest, he sees strange miniature crop circles in his cornfields that anybody but a seasoned farmer might believe were put there by aliens. The circles are staggered evenly along endless rows of withering feed-corn stalks. They are evidence of Quebec's most profitable cash crop: marijuana.

"By the time I get to my field (usually in mid-October), the marijuana plants are long gone," he says. "They cut it just after the first frost."

Like every farmer interviewed for this story, he didn't want his real name used. Too many farmers have been threatened, shot at or seen equipment vandalized by what they believe to be pot growers.

This is the season when legions of alien trespassers invade the countryside and cash in on what is now a billion-dollar industry in Quebec.

"It's an industry that's putting a lot of money into the hands of organized crime," said Lt. Jean Audette of the Surete du Quebec.

Many people dismiss it as "just weed," he added.

"It's not just weed. It's a commodity that makes a fortune and that's what makes it dangerous. ... All organized crime is involved."

So much money is available that for the first time police have seen Russian, Italian and biker gangs working together. It's a nationwide problem, they say.

Staff Sgt. Rick Barnum of Ontario's drug-enforcement squad said most Canadian-grown marijuana goes to the United States, where traffickers get $3,000 to $4,000 a pound in the East and as much as $7,000 in California.

"Our marijuana is considered to be phenomenal in other parts of the world," he said. "It is traded for cocaine and it hits the streets in Canada as a clean trade for cocaine. ... We're saturated with marijuana grows."

As co-ordinator of Program Ciseaux (Shears) in Quebec, Audette is the man ultimately responsible for destroying pot grows. It's not an easy job.

Last year, the SQ confiscated 392,885 plants, compared with 73,491 in 1993. The huge increase in seizures reflects the enormous expansion of marijuana cultivation throughout every region of the province.

Marijuana growing and consumption have exploded, and police admit they're impossible to stop.

It's one of the reasons for the lawlessness that has taken hold in such communities as Kanesatake.

It's behind the threats and vandalism that have made farmers fearful of challenging the growers.

Educators worry pot consumption is rising at alarming rates in both primary and high schools, particularly among boys. In some areas, educators claim anywhere from 25 per cent to 50 per cent of boys smoke it regularly. One study claims 1.4 million Quebecers are daily pot users. If that seems high, police seizures appear to back up that figure.

In schools like those in the province's so-called pot valley along the fertile banks of the St. Lawrence River, school officials worry that the industry is criminalizing rural youth. They note that absenteeism is rising and suspect it is because boys leave school to harvest the pot.

The regional school board of Nicolet-Yamaska formed a special research committee last month to study the problem. But it's an uphill battle. The mayor of nearby Pierreville was quoted as welcoming the pot growers as good for the struggling rural economy.

"The problem is our society doesn't take it seriously," local school commissioner Gerald Dauphinais said. "We have trivialized it."

Many Canadians mistakenly believe that simple possession of marijuana is no longer a crime. While federal government reports have recommended decriminalizing pot, no action has been taken and possession of pot remains a criminal offence subject to fines or jail terms.

But normally police don't bother with simple possession, which is defined in law as anything less than 30 grams - about one ounce.

"I can't remember the last time I arrested somebody for possession," one officer said. "We are after organized crime."

Another officer said the result of this laissez-faire attitude is that dealers enjoy an unfettered street market in small amounts of pot with the knowledge that there's practically no downside.

There are concerns that pot is not the same "soft" drug it used to be. Genetic manipulation has produced strains 10 to 20 times more powerful than the weed smoked at the long-ago pop festivals of Woodstock, Altamont or Monterey.

SQ lab tests show the average THC - the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana - of plants seized in the 1980s was about one per cent. Now it's eight to 10 per cent, and the SQ has confiscated some pot with levels as high as 22.5 per cent.

"One guy we caught growing it called it wheelchair weed - one toke and you're paralyzed," a police officer said.

No one disputes that the occasional consumption of pot remains relatively harmless, said Andre Dontigny, director of public health for Nicolet-Yamaska region, one of Quebec's hottest pot-growing regions.

"I'm more concerned about the criminality and the impact of that on society," he said. "We need a national debate on the legalization issue."

Original strains of pot number about six. Now there are more than 6,000 genetic varieties of varied punch, colour and aroma. Many of the most powerful strains are bred for the harsher Quebec climate and are globally referred to as "Quebec gold." It's this power-packed weed that often wins prizes at the annual Cannabis Cup contest in Amsterdam.

It's also the same weed that winds up on the streets of Montreal - the end of the line for a network of growers, enforcers, pushers and money-launderers whose business has terrorized the countryside and fattened the coffers of organized crime.

Billion-Dollar Pot Business:

If figures tell the story, the rise in pot seizures speaks volumes.

Over the past five years, police in Canada have seized on average 1.1 million plants a year. This is six times the level of 1993.

Estimating the size of the annual crop across Canada is tricky. But using a 25-per-cent seizure rate, police claim it is 800 tonnes. That's the low end. On the high end, using a 10-per-cent seizure rate, the crop size is 2,000 tonnes, according to the RCMP's 2004 annual drug report.

The total value of the crop is another mystery. Like any commodity, prices vary according to supply, demand and quality. Pot growers say a pound of pot can wholesale for as much as $2,500.

Alain Berthiaume, publisher of the pot smokers' magazine Cannabis Quebec, said he's still able to buy last year's crop at about $1,640 a pound.

At this low price, and taking the low-end annual crop size of 800 tonnes, it means the annual crop is worth at least $3.5 billion.

At the high end, it's worth $7.9 billion. This equals half of Canada's total crop production sales, which was $14.4 billion in 2002.

Quebec is the pot-production leader, with about 40 per cent of annual seizures. British Columbia is second, at about 30 per cent, and Ontario third, at about 16 per cent.

Large amounts are exported into the U.S., where customs officials note a 700-per-cent increase in pot seizures from Canada since 2000.

Tomorrow: Fearful Farmers, Ganja Man:

Threats and intimidation: Farmers live in fear of marijuana growers, and are either too afraid to call the police or say it's not worth their while. Some farmers complain that police ruin their fields in the process of destroying the pot. Police complain that the farmers don't want to get involved.

Meet Montreal's self-proclaimed ganja man: Probably nobody embodies the pot culture of Quebec more than Alain Berthiaume. A talkative, high-strung man of 51, he has built his life and business around the weed, and he is the province's leading advocate for legalization of marijuana.

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