Cannabis cultivation is flourishing on Canada’s West Coast. In British Columbia, fortunes are made by growing pot for export to the U.S. market. The ‘B.C. Bud’ industry brings in more money than the lumber business or tourism. Some propose legalization. But not everybody welcomes B.C.’s position as a marijuana Mecca.
By Frank Kuin in British Columbia
On a foggy autumn morning, somewhere in the greater Vancouver area, Sam, an experienced grower, inspects the plants in his extensive growing operation. In a fresh, sweet air, he walks from one room to another of his modern barn: from a space with baby plants under powerful lamps to a room with tall, lime-green plants full of ripe, sticky buds. He takes one between his thumb and index finger – a semi-soft mass with a crystal-like glow. “Smells good,” he says.
What he has between his fingers is green gold: top quality Canadian marijuana, with a content of THC, the active ingredient of cannabis, of up to 20 per cent. It might be called ‘Canaweed’ in a nod to ‘Nederwiet’ (Cannabis grown in the Netherlands). But in North-America, the highly desirable marijuana from this area, the West Coast province of British Columbia (B.C.), is widely known as ‘B.C. Bud’.
Sam knows how to grow it. The cultivation process of his operation is highly automated. The corridor between the growing rooms has chilled water reservoirs where nutrients are added. Each plant is placed under an adjustable 1,000 watt lamp. Every door has a thermostat; the temperature is adjusted automatically from 25 degrees Celcius during the day to 22 degrees at night.
Photo series: Marijuana grow-op in British Columbia
“We simulate Mother Nature,” he explains — except that the plants are not in dirt but in buckets with clay pellets, using the ‘hydroponics’ growing method. “It’s more finicky, but the weed is much better, much sweeter,” he says.
Outside, the yard offers views of lush, green surroundings. The barn is equipped with video cameras, guard dogs and motion sensors. “If someone comes in the middle of the night, I can defend myself,” Sam says. In a separate shed, the marijuana is treated. A cutting machine separates the buds from the leaves before it’s dried. Sam pulls out a rack full of green buds. “This is the end product.”
And what an end product it is. According to some estimates, B.C. Bud is the most valuable product of British Columbia – more valuable than traditional economic sectors like softwood lumber, natural resources, and tourism. The West Coast province is a top supplier of marijuana in North America; billions of dollars worth of weed is grown here annually, destined for the Canadian and U.S. markets. Demand for weed is almost insatiable, while the risk of getting busted is lower in Canada than it is in the U.S. Revenues are higher than those of traditional Canadian export products. Hence, it’s all about growth, growth, growth.
“If you don’t draw attention to yourself, people leave you alone”
“There’s a lot of growing going on in this area,” says Brad, an associate of Sam, behind the wheel of an SUV on the road back to Vancouver. “There’s a lot of space, and if you don’t draw attention to yourself, people leave you alone. Many of the large farms you see in this area are used to grow marijuana. Farmers often sell their properties to people who turn them into hemp growing operations. The chicken farms and mushroom farms you see are ideal to start a grow-op.”
A grow-op, or growing operation, is the English term for an indoor hemp plantation: a space with powerful lamps simulating daylight 12 hours per day. A grower with some knowledge can harvest about a pound of marijuana per lamp every two months, with an average value of about $2,000 (Canadian). An operation of 25 lamps thus yields $50,000 per harvest. “If you do that five times a year, you have $250,000,” calculates Brad. Tax free, of course.
“Last month, one was busted here,” he says, pointing to a property on the left. “Usually, you get away with a warning, because otherwise, the court system is overloaded.” According to Brad, the resources of so-called ‘green teams’, or anti-marijuana units of police are limited. “They can only bust so many per day. Once they’ve visited, they generally don’t come back within two years. When an operation has been busted, growers often wait a month before firing it up again. The chance something happens to you is small; the chance of becoming a multimillionaire is large.”
For that reason, the cultivation of cannabis in British Columbia has developed into a multi-billion dollar industry in the past 10 to 15 years, says Stephen Easton, an economist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. Easton has researched the size of the sector on the Canadian West Coast. He estimates that there are at least 17,500 growing operations in all of British Columbia, with combined revenue of at least $7 billion per year – about 5 per cent of the province’s GDP.
“The sector is surprisingly large if you can believe the numbers,” he says. “And we’re not even counting the many private grows of people with some plants in their basement.” A striking fact that underpins Easton’s estimate is that the closing of even large grow-ops by police has no noticeable effect on the market price of B.C. Bud.
“Police detachments are inundated by the numbers of grow-ops”
Controlling marijuana on the West Coast is therefore a big challenge for Canadian authorities. The cultivation of cannabis in B.C. started many years ago as an activity of hippies and hobbyists and was later taken up by the middle class for extra income. It has given the province a solid reputation as a weed centre of the continent. As in the Netherlands, some are increasingly asking questions about that dubious honour.
The police has its hands full on the B.C. Bud issue, says Staff Sergeant Dave Goddard of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP, or ‘Mounties’), at the headquarters of the Greater Vancouver Drug Section. He doesn’t mince words: “Police detachments are inundated by the numbers of grow-ops. The exact number is difficult to pin down, but it’s probably in the tens of thousands. People are growing in basements, garages, barns, attics. They’re only limited by their imagination as to where they can put 100 to 200 plants.”
The growth of hemp cultivation has to do in part with the liberal climate in the Canadian province on what is sometimes referred to as the ‘left coast’. Society has for many years viewed marijuana as acceptable. Punishments for its cultivation are mild, especially compared to those in the U.S. Growing cannabis carries a maximum sentence of seven years in jail in Canada. However, says Goddard, a veteran of 19 years in anti-drug operations, “I have never seen anyone get seven years for production of cannabis. I have seen people get shorter jail time, I’ve seen fines, and absolute and conditional discharges.”
That doesn’t mean that there’s tolerance, he emphasizes – certainly not by police. He speaks of the objective to “defeat” the growers and traders. It fits in with the national political climate in Canada, where the Conservatives have been in power for a few years with a tough-on-crime agenda. Plans by the previous, Liberal government to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana have been cancelled.
Police makes use of tips and other indications to tackle grow-ops. Properties that use extraordinary amounts of electricity are suspect, and investigators have infrared heat meters at their disposal, because grow-ops emit heat. And then there’s the odour. Several indications together can lead to a police raid – but that whole process takes many man hours, and Goddard acknowledges, “we only have so much in the way of resources.”
“Farmers often sell their properties to people who turn them into grow-ops”
For that reason, the Greater Vancouver Drug Section focuses on the growing involvement of organized crime in the sector. Cannabis cultivation is increasingly dominated by professional, armed gangs. Asian crime groups and biker gangs, such as the Hell’s Angels, are fighting for control. Larger grow-ops, up to tens of thousands of plants, are established in the vast B.C. interior. Some are taken over by rivals at gun point.
An example of a mega-operation is a busted grow-op of more than 33,000 plants in Likely, a town of 250 people, 550 kilometres northeast of Vancouver. The cannabis plants were divided over eight properties, some with buildings that were custom-made. Nine people were arrested, all of them with alleged ties to a Vietnamese crime organization. They are currently on trial. According to Goddard, Likely “is a good example of what’s going on in terms of marijuana grows.”
Crime organizations are particularly attracted to the lucrative export of B.C. Bud to the U.S. An estimated 85 per cent of Canada’s weed crop goes to the U.S. market. It is smuggled in many ways: in trucks through the customs stations at the international boundary between British Columbia and Washington State, with boats along the coast, and across unguarded parts of the border in the interior. Remote parts of the border are crossed with everything from snowmobiles to helicopters, which dump loads in the forested border area. Some years ago, investigators even discovered a tunnel. Money, weapons and cocaine flow back into Canada.
According to Easton, the economist, the Canadian cultivation of cannabis is comparable to the large-scale production of alcohol in Canada during Prohibition in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. Americans had a great demand for illegal alcohol – and Canada was willing to provide. “The similarities with marijuana are large,” says Easton. “In both cases, there is growing involvement of organized crime, and the police can only control a small portion.”
Easton makes a case for legalizing and regulating marijuana. He argues that the ban is responsible for attracting organized crime. “Prohibition also led to an enormous growth of crime,” he says. In the end, production and trade of alcohol were regulated and taxed. The same should be considered for marijuana, he argues, because the current laws are not enforceable and out of step with the social acceptance of weed. Moreover, “revenues that now go to criminals would become tax revenues.”
“There is growing involvement of organized crime”
Legalization of marijuana is not politically feasible, though, certainly not in the United States, where drug fighters consider Canada a northern front in the ‘war on drugs’. The American Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) sees a growing danger in criminal groups in the distribution of marijuana: “These groups are increasingly gaining control over much of the high potency marijuana production and distribution in Canada and now appear to be extending their influence in the United States.”
Goddard of the Greater Vancouver Drug Section also rejects legalization: “There will always be organized crime attached to the drug problem,” he says. “To simply decide that the challenge is too great, that we’ll legalize it is not the way to go.”
Days later, the phone rings. Police in a suburb of Vancouver are about to bust a grow-op in an industrial area with commercial buildings and storage spaces. The ‘green team’ of the local police detachment is accompanied by a marked car. If there are growers inside, they will know instantly that it’s a police raid, and not an armed takeover by a rival gang. That reduces chances of a firefight. The glass front door is shattered. Behind it is a bathroom business, with a messy storage of bath tubs and shower stalls. It doesn’t look prosperous.
Photo series: Busted grow-op in the Vancouver area
Upstairs, it’s a different story. Dozens of rows of cannabis plants are under powerful lamps, close together in pots of dirt, divided over several rooms. In the hallway are large vats with water and nutrients, ‘Monster Bloom’ and ‘Bud Blaster’. No people are present.
Members of the police inspect the grow-op. The team leader estimates the operation has 600 plants. “There are 52 lamps,” he says. “Yesterday, I was at an operation of 88 lamps, this morning at one of 42, this week at one of 60.” Police received a tip, he says. One of the other properties also housed a grow-op, and there were suspicions about the bathroom business. Firefighters went on the roof to smell the vents. “They are very close to their neighbours, the smell has probably betrayed them.”
A truck pulls up to the back of the property, workers are ready to start breaking down the operation. The plants will be seized and destroyed. Lamps and other equipment will go to a storage facility. No arrests are made; it’s a matter of clearing and moving on. A thin wall that separates the upstairs from the main warehouse is destroyed. The lamps are turned off. Tomorrow there will be other grow-ops to bust.
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