Pubdate: Sun, 18 Jan 2004
Source: Toronto Star (CN ON)
Copyright: 2004 The Toronto Star
Author: David Bruser
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Canada)
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)
Bookmark: (Kubby, Steve)


Pot Charges Are Just One Problem

'Like Playing Mother Nature'

Put together a few thousand dollars to rent a house in an unsuspecting
subdivision, another $10,000 for lights and fans, order cannabis seeds
from the Internet, hire some trustworthy friends, and there you have
it: the skeleton of a small marijuana grow-op.

Sounds simple enough.

But you'd better make friends with a horticulturist, and maybe an
electrician, and read up on plant nutrients. If you get past the first
few months without half your crop dying, consider yourself lucky.

If you're successful, think twice before expanding. The money is good,
but so is the risk of someone squealing to the cops or thieves
crawling into your greenhouse.

All of this makes the discovery of the massive marijuana grow-op in
Barrie last week even more surprising.

Police found a football field-size crop growing in beer vats inside an
erstwhile Molson brewery, a scenario fit for a writer of hard-boiled
TV scripts. Many say the operation's size was also its downfall.

"The growing's not that easy," said Bruce Ryan, who has grown
marijuana in Toronto for medicinal purposes.

"You have to be a little bit of a carpenter. You have to be a little
bit of an electrician. You have to know climate control. You have to
be able to understand quite a bit about gardening. It's like playing
Mother Nature indoors."

Ryan, who has epilepsy, said he once operated a grow house with nine
others on Carlaw Ave. in Toronto that produced 600 plants at a time
until it shut down in 2000.

Police say the Barrie growers were caught with 30,000 plants, a vast
hydroponics operation that Ryan and others say required more than a
mischievous mind and green thumb.

The bust is being called the biggest ever in North America. Police
video footage shows a tropical jungle of marijuana plants grown in a
computer-controlled environment.

Giant beer vats were hothouses for germinating seeds.

Estimates peg the total value of the marijuana -- which took up about
half the space in the 121,000-square-foot building -- at $100 million a
year. Nine people were arrested.

"That is the biggest place that I've heard of," said Michael
Straumietis, CEO of Advanced Nutrients, a hydroponics nutrients
distributor based in Abbotsford, B.C.

Straumietis, whose company operates 12 legal, medicinal grow-labs in
400-square-foot garages, said the cost and effort involved with
setting up a commercial grow parallel a medicinal weed operation.

His cost equation is simple: $1,500-$2,000 for every high-pressure
sodium light, including the required grow-space accessories -- assuming
the operator taps into the power grid -- but closer to $3,000 if the
operator uses a generator.

The average grow-op will typically gross between $10,000 and $12,000
per 1,000-watt light per year, he added.

"They probably spent at least $2 million," Straumietis said of the
Barrie operation's start-up cost.

"You're going to need lots of trimmers. They would have people that
all they do all day long is take cuttings to propagate the plant... A
building like that, you'd have 24-hour security."

In addition, a large operation would need several rooms so plants can
be rotated out of the lights' glare and into darkness, air
conditioning, fans and carbon dioxide, among other things.

"The guy who did this, he knew certified electricians, certified
plumbers and certified air conditioning guys, and they're very easy to
hire because they get paid in cash."

Only an organized crime outfit could bring the money and knowledge to
bear on providing the umbrella for an operation on the scale of the
Barrie grow factory, according to RCMP Chief Superintendent Ben Soave,
who's in charge of the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit.

"You don't have a bunch of amateurs getting involved in a major
operation like that," he said. "They have the financial resources to
set up the operation."

In addition to the manpower, expertise and audacity, the organizers
behind a grow operation would need to trust everyone in the network.

"It's always based on trust," said Thomas Naylor, economics professor
at McGill University, who teaches a course called The Underground Economy.

The unlikelihood of stiff sentences is also luring the commercial pot
grower to larger operations, said Toronto defence lawyer Ken Smith,
who has worked on several marijuana-cultivation cases.

Fifteen years ago in Stratford, Ont., Smith worked a case that
involved "thousands and thousands of plants. Those people did not go
to jail. ... I was able to 'Aw shucks' it out of court, even though it
was worth millions. .. The commercial side of it was downplayed. The
penalties have always been minimal."

Couple low risk with North American demand and the allure is obvious,
said Steve Easton, economics professor at Simon Fraser University.

"There is a lot of money in this business," said Easton, who's
preparing a report on marijuana growing in B.C. for the Fraser Institute.

"I was at a sentencing hearing for a guy who got convicted about a few
months ago. . .. (The judge) said, 'Okay, your fine is $1,800,' and
the guy went, 'Okay, you want that in cash?'

"The analogy I see is Prohibition. I mean, good grief. Haven't people
watched The Untouchables enough on TV? Turn on the TV station, watch
Eliot Ness as he smashes Al Capone's stills and sit back and sip your

Here are Easton's specs on an operation that produces 100 plants every
four months:

At 100 grams per plant, the harvest would generate $57,000 worth of
pot. That's $171,000 per year.

For expenses, factor $18,000 to rent a house for a year, another
$5,000-10,000 for equipment, such as lights, trays, fans, and $70,000
per year to hire round-the clock maintenance and security staff.

That's a maximum of $100,000 in expenses, Easton said.

But the pitfalls of tending a marijuana crop can foil a grow operation
just as fast.

"Everything from pests off your house plants to neighbourhood pests
who will break and enter and steal your garden if they catch wind of
it ," Bruce Ryan says.

Ask Steve Kubby. Suffering from adrenal cancer, Kubby left Lake Tahoe,
Calif., and won a medical exemption from the Canadian government to
grow marijuana in his new home northwest of Vancouver.

"Growing indoors invites a whole host of problems, the most horrendous
of which is spider mites," he says. "They can take down a garden in a
couple of weeks and leave just one giant mess of cobwebs."

Kubby's wife Michele helps him tend to the crop, an experience that
has left her marvelling at the Barrie operation.

"I am stunned and amazed that they could keep it under control," she
said. "They had, what, a thousand lights and thousands of plants? So
many problems can happen. Those guys must have been pretty good."

But illegal operations, by their very nature, are the enemy of
expansion and vertical organization, Naylor said.

"(With a legal business), what you try to do is absorb the business of
the competitors. You want to absorb all of that profit into your own
company," he said. "With an illegal business, it's just the opposite.

"You want as many mediators as possible. All factors point toward
downsizing. They point toward loose associations rather than
integrated management."

If, as Naylor says, size and organization are both lethal to an
illegal business, then the Barrie pot house's chances for survival
were slim.

"The profit rates are higher, but profits are useless if you're
arrested and they're being stripped from you," Naylor said.The Barrie
operation "is a great Cheech and Chong story -- these characters
thinking they can take over a gigantic building and employ nine or 10
flunkies to tend it and think no one's going to hear about it," lawyer
Smith said.

"It got too big. ... This really shows the cheek of these guys. A very
risky operation." 
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