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Boom in marijuana trafficking mars Canada’s image  

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Canada: A Northern Border Menace


Boom in marijuana trafficking mars Canada’s image

WINNIPEG, Manitoba – License plates proclaim this ”Friendly Manitoba,” and the province is best known for wheat farms, flatness, and the rectitude of its inhabitants.  But the hottest agricultural commodity flowing from the Canadian heartland these days is pot to blast your socks off.

”Manitoba product has a following as far away as south Florida,” said Brent Eaton, special agent with US Drug Enforcement Administration’s Miami office.  ”On a larger scale, Canadian homegrown is displacing brands from Colombia and Mexico because of its extreme potency.”

Manitoba is joining British Columbia and Quebec as producer of hydroponic weed so powerful that drug enforcement officials on both sides of border claim it no longer should be considered a soft drug.

”This isn’t the stuff you smoked in college,” said Staff Sergeant Chuck Doucette, a drug investigator with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which has been frustrated in its efforts to crack down on one of North America’s fastest-growing crime sectors by courts so lenient that Canada is winning an international reputation as safe haven for pot purveyors.

”This is high-powered product that’s producing hundreds of millions of dollars in profits for some very nasty characters,” Doucette said.  ”Most of it is going straight to the United States market.”

Made-in-Canada marijuana – some of it brazenly marketed over the Internet – is also changing the definition of ”homegrown.” Once the term conjured over-the-hill hippies tending backyard plots.  Today it means indoor hydroponic ”grow-ops” run with ruthless efficiency by Asian crime syndicates or white biker gangs, most notoriously the Hells Angels.

So much Canadian marijuana is now pouring over the border, with American enforcement agencies reporting a tenfold increase over the last two years, that the US State Department considered placing Canada on its narcotics ”black list” – alongside the likes of Burma and Afghanistan – for not doing enough to curb the drug trade.

The unprecedented proposal faltered under diplomatic pressure and pleas from Ottawa.  But Canada’s lax attitude toward marijuana, long a source of irritation for police, is coming under fire even from the United Nations – the body’s International Narcotics Control Board recently warned Canadian-based Web sites now represent the world’s No.  1 Internet source of marijuana seeds and high-tech cultivation equipment, including computer-driven hydroponic systems.

Hydroponics is a catch-all term for intensive indoor growing methods using heavily fertilized water, powerful lights, high heat, and humidity.  Increasingly, sophisticated plant genetics also are coming into play.

The result is marijuana far more potent than anything grown out-of-doors.  Levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC – the compound that gives pot its pow – average 15 to 20 percent in the standard hydroponic marijuana that is already British Columbia’s single most valuable agricultural product.  Ultra strains top out at mind-numbing THC levels of 30 percent.

By contrast, the marijuana produced in Latin America, long considered creme de la creme, has an average THC content of only 6 percent and even Jamaica’s strongest rarely reaches 12 percent.  The stuff smoked by most casual American users has THC levels of 2 to 3 percent.

”BC pot, Manitoba pot – these are getting the top dollar in the US,” said Marc Emery, a British Columbia marijuana activist, publisher of Cannabis Culture magazine and open seller of marijuana seeds via his company, Emery Seeds of Vancouver.  ”Canadian growers have a lot of skill.”

Gangs employ specialist hydroponic technicians to oversee hundreds of plants at a time.  A single superhybrid can yield a pound of potent buds and leaves every 90 days – worth $2,000 in Canada, $4,000 in the United States.

Canada’s burgeoning marijuana industry in some ways represents a replay of the Roaring Twenties, when whiskey smuggled from north of the border slaked America’s Prohibition thirst.  Then, as now, the border is simply too long and porous to deter serious smugglers – who either use crossings in remote areas or simply play the odds and place shipments in truck containers or automobile trunks, knowing that only a tiny percentage of travelers are searched.

But Canadian police are stepping up the battle on the home front, alarmed at the takeover of the industry by organized crime and soaring numbers of shootings, bombings, and other attacks.  So lucrative is the enterprise that producers purchase suburban houses or urban duplexes to grow marijuana for a year or two, then abandon structures rotted by humidity and rank with mildew.

In an especially troubling trend, criminals now routinely hire ”front families,” often illegal immigrants from Vietnam or China, to lend an outwardly normal appearance to dwellings serving as hydroponic pot farms.  ”They want kids playing on the lawn, mom smiling from the window to defer suspicions of neighbors,” said Doucette.  ”But these places are often firetraps, full of makeshift wiring, propane tanks, chemicals.”

In recent weeks, Winnipeg police have raided eight substantial indoor hydroponic operations, seizing $1.7 million worth of marijuana plants.  ”It’s a huge cash business,” said Detective Sergeant Ron Trakalo of the Winnipeg Police Vice Squad.  ”It’s a crime industry literally growing up all around us.”

The busts in Manitoba produced a flurry of headlines, mainly because the staid province seemed such an unlikely marijuana producing center.  In fact, the province is still a long way from catching up with Canada’s reigning champs, British Columbia and Quebec – nonetheless, among aficionados, BC Bud and Quebec Gold have been joined by Winnipeg Wheelchair Weed, so-nicknamed because of its disabling effects on users.

In British Columbia, annual marijuana cultivation is reckoned to be worth more than $2 billion, making the illicit plant one of the most important sectors of the provincial economy.  ”As an industry, pot comes just after logging and mining,” said Sergeant Randa Elliott of the Organized Crime Agency.  ”We estimate there are 10,000 grow-ops in the province.  ”

In raids last month, the agency, composed of Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers and local British Columbia police, swooped down on 80 operations, seizing 14,258 marijuana plants with an estimated value of $5.6 million, hundreds of pounds of marijuana packaged for shipment, and – rare for Canada – an array of firearms.

”One home was heavily fortified with steel doors, alarm systems, and surveillance cameras,” Elliott said.  ”Obviously we’re not talking Ma and Pa growing just enough good stuff to stay mellow.  We’re talking major crime.”

The emergence of Canadian marijuana as an important export crop reflects a transformation in the cultivation of North America’s favorite recreational drug.  Surreptitious clearings in remote rural areas have been around for decades, of course, but cultivation in Canada was restricted by the short growing season.  And the potency of northern weed was unremarkable.

Now, the rural plots have been overshadowed by hydroponic groweries requiring little space and producing powerful product.  Such operations are expanding rapidly in the United States, too, but Canada is winning a reputation as a safe base because courts treat even commercial cultivation as a minor offense, rarely handing out jail time or fines of more than $2,000.

”That’s not a penalty for a pot grower pocketing $200,000 per crop,” griped one drug enforcement officer in Quebec.  ”That’s a minor business expense, a cheap license fee.  It’s a national embarrassment.”

     URL: http://www.mapinc.org/drugnews/v00/n553/a04.html
Newshawk: Dick Evans
Pubdate: Wed, 26 Apr 2000
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.
Contact: letter@globe.com
Address: P.O. Box 2378, Boston, MA 02107-2378
Feedback: http://extranet.globe.com/LettersEditor/default.asp
Website: http://www.boston.com/globe/
Author: Colin Nickerson, Globe Staff

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