Pubdate: Mon, 12 Jan 2004
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2004, The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Peter Cheney


BARRIE, ONT. -- From the outside, it was a blank industrial building that
had seen better times. But inside was another world -- galaxies of
high-powered grow lights, kilometres of irrigation tubing, armed "farmers,"
and endless green waves of top-grade marijuana.

That was the scene police encountered this weekend in a raid that uncovered
an odd and uniquely ambitious criminal operation -- an indoor marijuana farm
"bigger than a football field" that was located next to one of the busiest
highways in Canada.

"You had to see it to believe it," OPP Superintendent Bill Crate said after
touring the operation, which was set up in a former Molson brewery on the
east side of Highway 400 in the city of Barrie. The highway, a main conduit
for commuters and cottage-goers, carries up to 159,000 cars a day.

Police arrested 11 people after a Saturday morning raid, then spent the
weekend collecting evidence at the colossal indoor marijuana farm, which was
located in windowless space inside the former brewery.

News of the epic bust spread quickly through Barrie. "I didn't think Barrie
was the dope capital of Ontario," said a clerk at a downtown store. "I
figured it would be Mississauga or something."

Supt. Crate said there were "thousands upon thousands" of plants in the
indoor farm, which was attended by "farmers" who lived inside the former
brewery to guard and tend the plants, which were grown in hydroponic tanks
under huge lamps. The plants were watered by an extensive irrigation system.

Police said the operation occupied several sections of the former brewery,
which was closed in 2000 when Molson reorganized its operations amid
declining sales, putting 414 people out of work.

Since then, a number of companies have leased space in the roughly
11,250-square-metrecomplex. Among the current tenants are a bottling
company, a coffee-roasting firm and a trucking outfit.

The owner of a nearby industrial operation said he had "no clue" that a
massive marijuana farm had been operating in the brewery.

"All I know is that trucks would come and go," he said. "There was nothing
unusual about that."

The weekend raid on the brewery site was a massive operation that included
more than 100 officers. Among those involved in the operation were SWAT
teams, canine units, and bomb-disposal experts. Supt. Crate said that
large-scale growing operations are often booby-trapped, and that further
hazards are presented by "pirate" connections to high-voltage power lines
used to run growing lights.

"It took most of Saturday just to make sure it was safe," he said.

There was a certain paradox to the marijuana operation's discovery, given
that Barrie is a perennial competitor in a national contest known as
"Communities in Bloom," which recognizes towns and cities for "the
imaginative use of flowers, plants and trees."

(In 2001, Barrie was a winner in the category of towns with populations
between 101,000 and 300,000.)

Although police had not released official estimates as of yesterday, it
appears that the value of the crops grown in the former brewery could reach
into the tens of millions of dollars. Supt. Crate said there were several
thousand plants, ranging from seedlings to "mother plants" that were used to
harvest seeds for new crops.

"It's huge," he said. "Huge."

Sergeant George Cabral of the Barrie police force said the operation was
well organized and elaborate: "Someone went to a lot of trouble and
expense," he said.

The raid on the growing operation came after an investigation by the Huronia
Combined Forces Drug Unit, a task force that includes officers from four
different police forces. Spokesmen would not elaborate on how they learned
about the operation, but a police source said the arrests came after a
"street tip."

"Something this size can't stay secret forever," the source said.

The Barrie operation reflects a growing trend. According to Green Tide, a
study prepared for the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, indoor
marijuana growing increased by more than 250 per cent between 2000 and 2002
in Ontario. Police estimated that in 2002, Ontario was home to as many as
15,000 operations, producing marijuana with an estimated value of up to

From the 1970s through the early 1990s, most marijuana was grown outdoors.
But by the mid-1990s, savvy growers had discovered that indoor operations
were easier to hide and far more profitable, since crops could be grown

Indoor growing was pioneered in British Columbia, but was soon transplanted
to Ontario. Although most growers operated out of suburban homes, police
have noted a recent trend toward large operations based in industrial
spaces, which produce significant economies of scale.

The former brewery appears to have been a near-perfect venue. After touring
the site yesterday, one officer compared the rooms of marijuana to "a little

"It just went on and on," he said. "You've never seen anything like it."
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