High Times for Cottage Industry

High Times for Cottage Industry
Posted by FoM on May 10, 2000 at 04:54:22 PT
Steven Pearlstein, Washington Post Foreign Service
Source: Washington Post
Jean Simpson was out weeding her perennial beds on a brilliant spring afternoon last month when two vans pulled up in front of her house, disgorging a squad of police officers in flak jackets who began marching double time down Kenwood Street. After knocking on the front door four houses away, they drew their revolvers, smashed in the front door of the million-dollar mansion and emerged minutes later with their quarry: 78 potted plants. 
"I suppose this is not exactly what you'd expect in what's supposed to be the richest and safest community in Canada," said Simpson, a real estate agent. But these days, it's hardly an unusual occurrence. With so many houses put up for rent by absentee owners, Simpson's exclusive neighborhood has become a favored location for British Columbia's fastest-growing industry: the illegal cultivation of some of the world's most sought-after marijuana.This is nothing like your father's hash. After years of selective breeding and cutting-edge cultivation techniques, experts say "B.C. Bud" has three to five times the potency, or THC levels, of marijuana grown outdoors in Mexico or the Caribbean. And from its benign roots as a backyard avocation of aging hippies, the marijuana trade here has grown into a sophisticated, multibillion-dollar industry that rivals forestry and tourism in its economic impact and is largely controlled by Vietnamese crime gangs and the Hell's Angels.With most of the marijuana destined for U.S. markets, American officials have been pressing Canada to take more aggressive steps to halt the flow of B.C. Bud. Raids on indoor growing houses are now daily occurrences, while every night, special teams of U.S. and Canadian police, using the latest military technology, prowl British Columbia's hundreds of miles of unfenced border in search of "mules" carrying hockey equipment bags stuffed with marijuana.But with Canadian courts reluctant to give serious jail time to low-level growers and couriers, even police concede their stepped-up enforcement has been ineffective in getting the testimony necessary to win convictions against kingpins."At the end of the day, the court system here doesn't offer much of a deterrence," said Constable John Ibbotson of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who has spent more than a decade in drug enforcement in the Vancouver area.A recent study by the Vancouver Sun newspaper, in fact, found that while growing and transporting commercial quantities of marijuana carries penalties of up to seven years in prison, only one in five people convicted of the crimes received any jail time--and of those who did, nearly all could have been out within 45 days. Most of the rest received fines averaging about $2,000, the annual revenue from one plant.It is no surprise that British Columbia has become a center of excellence for the marijuana trade. Much like California, the region became a haven for baby boomers seeking an alternative lifestyle in the 1970s, and their liberal and libertarian values continue to color life on Canada's "Left Coast." Patrons could be seen lighting up joints in bars and coffee shops or even on a downtown street while certain cafes boasted dishes laced with "Mary Jane." And with police already overwhelmed by the growing traffic in cocaine and heroin, recreational marijuana use was simply not a law enforcement priority. Not coincidentally, a solid majority of British Columbian voters favored some form of legalization.By the early 1990s, marijuana had become a cottage industry, particularly in rural areas where declines in the region's traditional fishing, mining and logging industries had left legions underemployed. Using new 1,000-watt metal halide light bulbs and special indoor growing techniques to produce ever more potent plants, local growers found a new cash crop for export. Local merchants began to do a brisk business in hydroponic equipment (there are now 29 stores listed in the Vancouver yellow pages) while specialized dial-a-harvest teams sprang up to cut, drug, dry and package the crop for sale. By the end of the decade, a pound of B.C. Bud was fetching $3,000 across the border in Washington state and $6,000 on the streets of New York and Los Angeles.According to Canadian police, it was the local chapter of the Hell's Angels--reputed to be the richest in North America--that began to bring disciplined organization to the marijuana trade, integrating a network of independent growers with an effective distribution network in the United States. Beginning in 1995, however, the bikers began to be edged out by Vietnamese gangs that not only recruited low-cost immigrant workers to the trade but were more willing to use beatings and murder to shut out competitors."The Vietnamese," said one U.S. law enforcement official, "make the Hell's Angels look like angels."Just last month, for example, a 24-year-old Vietnamese immigrant named John Ly was beaten to death in his rented house in Burnaby, a Vancouver suburb, where he lived with his wife and children. Police found 140 marijuana plants growing in the basement. It was the fourth such gangland-style murder in eight weeks.Investigators say the Vietnamese growers follow a very disciplined routine. Each gang has specialists--usually nice, well-spoken young couples--who lease houses from property managers. They never move in, but instead send a professional crew to hook up the necessary heating and ventilation systems. The crew also arranges an electrical bypass so the local power company is unable to detect any sudden increase in power use required by the high-watt bulbs. Then, a recent immigrant with little or no knowledge of the rest of the operation is offered the opportunity to live with his family in the house in return for watering the plants and keeping out of sight. A harvesting crew is sent in every few months to harvest the marijuana and prepare it for export.Just about every sort of conveyance--from kayaks and sailboats to horses, snowmobiles, mountain bikes and airplanes--has been used to get the marijuana into the United States. At various points, the border between the two countries amounts to a six-foot-wide ditch with a country highway running parallel on either side, close enough for smugglers to toss the hockey bag from one moving pickup to another.Shortly before 10 p.m. on a recent rainy and foggy night, for example, three Canadian members of the International Border Enforcement Team were camped out in a farmer's field in Chilliwack, B.C., when they spotted a white rented van traveling down a deserted country road only a mile from the border. The van stopped for about 10 seconds to discharge two men carrying backpacks."The game is afoot, Watson," whispered RCMP investigator Don Nicholson into the two-way radio to his American counterparts.Twenty minutes later, a cold and soggy Bob Kohlman of the U.S. Border Patrol radioed from his hiding place in the woods that the two backpackers were waiting at the roadside 30 yards away. One was talking on a cell phone. Soon enough, another car, this one with Washington plates, pulled up, and the two backpackers jumped in. Within minutes, Kohlman's colleague, Tim Welch, radioed that he had pulled the car over, arrested three Vietnamese males and confiscated 71 pounds of "that green stuff"--comfortably under the 100-pound threshold that would trigger federal prosecution and the higher sentences that go along with it."I'd be kidding you if I told you we stop more than 5 percent of the stuff that moves across this border," said Nicholson. "We do enough just to keep 'em honest."In recent months, however, the tide of public opinion has begun to shift against the marijuana trade as its impact has begun to be felt in the normally quiet suburban communities around Vancouver. Local fire departments have reported dozens of house fires caused by faulty wiring associated with the high-watt lamps. And police have blamed gang members for a rash of break-ins at homes mistakenly identified as rival growing operations.Last year, British Columbia moved to bring some much-needed coordination to its underfunded drug enforcement effort, which is divided among dozens of local jurisdictions, by launching a new B.C. Organized Crime Agency (OCA) with sweeping new powers and some additional manpower. In March, the agency launched a campaign against a Vietnamese gang that was operating in 24 locations. It arrested 31 people, seized $2 million worth of plants and put 23 children into state custody.But even top investigators at the agency said that, without the threat of long sentences or deportation, those arrested are unlikely to provide evidence against the higher-ups in the organization. "We could shut down grow houses forever and still never make a dent," said the agency's Brad Parker.Unlike police, however, Canadian politicians have been reluctant to criticize judges and prosecutors for the light sentences meted out in marijuana growing cases. As the province's attorney general, Ujjal Dosanjh was instrumental in setting up the OCA, but as British Columbia's new premier, he has maintained a studied silence on the issue. And in Ottawa, Canada's capital where drug laws and policies are set, a senior Justice Ministry official disputed that drug sentences in British Columbia were lighter than anywhere else, including neighboring Washington state."The leadership here just isn't prepared to deal with it," complained one U.S. official. "Nobody is ringing the alarm."Some judges, however, have begun to act on their own. Justice A.M. Stewart of the British Columbia Supreme Court recently sentenced a first-time grower to two years in jail. Declaring that it was time to "up the ante" in the war against organized crime gangs, Stewart effectively dared the judges of the appeals court to overturn his decision. "The courts must react," he wrote in his sentencing opinion. "There is no time to wait."West Vancouver, B.C. By Steven PearlsteinWashington Post Foreign ServiceWednesday, May 10, 2000; Page A20  2000 The Washington Post Company Related Articles & Web Sites:B.C. To Ottawa: This Bud's for You Out To Hire Marijuana Merchant Growers Sought, Experienced Need Not Apply 
Home Comment Email Register Recent Comments Help

Post Comment

Name: Optional Password: 
Comment: [Please refrain from using profanity in your message]
Link URL: 
Link Title: