Pubdate: Wed, 13 Sep 2006
Source: Standard, The (St. Catharines, CN ON)
Section: Pg A1
Copyright: 2006 The Standard
Author: Karena Walter
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Canada)
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)


The persistence of marijuana grow operations in Niagara and potential 
chemical labs on the horizon has police forming a new team to combat 
the problem head on.

Known informally as Guns, Gangs and Grows, the Niagara Regional 
Police team will focus specifically on those crimes under the 
umbrella of the intelligence unit.

Staff-Sgt. George Ravenek, who leads the intelligence unit, said 
illegal guns, grow operations and gang activities are intricately related.

"Where there are marijuana grows, there are often guns. There's a lot 
of crossover between these areas of concern," he said.

"It makes us able to more efficiently combat these three different problems."

The five-member team will bolster current resources and will have 
specialized training to enter drug houses. As well, officers in each 
of the six area districts will receive the same training and be 
liaisons for the team.

The NRP is funding the initiative through a grant received from the 
province to help cover the cost to hire 31 new officers.

NRP spokesman Const. Sal Basilone said the funding covers 50 per cent 
of wages up to a maximum of $35,000 per year.

The NRP has busted 20 marijuana grow operations in the region so far 
this year in a variety of indoor and outdoor premises. That's low 
compared to other years, Ravenek said, because police haven't put 
special resources into targeting grow-ops in anticipation of the new 
team being formed.

Still, in the last week, police have made several related arrests. On 
Monday, a Niagara Falls couple was charged with producing a 
controlled substance. Police said they were growing half a dozen 
plants about two metres tall in their backyard. They were also 
charged with possessing and carelessly storing a firearm with 
ammunition readily available.

On Friday, police found nearly $200,000 worth of marijuana plants in 
the basement of a Niagara-on-the-Lake home on Line 4. During that 
raid, police also found 13 firearms, one of which was stolen in 
Huntsville. The others were not registered and Ravenek said police 
are tracing the serial numbers.

Det.-Sgt. James Leigh of the morality unit said they've noticed 
grow-ops in the region are getting smaller in size, but not in 
number. Police think that's because hydro companies are tipped off to 
large grow operations as a result of the amount of electricity required.

With its primary focus on guns, gangs and grow-ops, the new squad is 
a resource to supplement the morality and street crime units, Ravenek said.

Det.-Sgt. Mark McMullen, who heads the St. Catharines street crime 
unit, said investigating marijuana grow-ops is labour-intensive. The 
preparation work from surveillance, studying hydro records and 
gathering grounds for a warrant can take between 120 and 200 
man-hours, he said.

The street crime unit is available for rapid response for other 
units, for everything from robbery to homicides and does short-term 
drug cases, but its primary mandate is property crime.

The new team is welcomed.

"It's going to take a little strain off divisional street crime units 
and allow us to get on with other things, which is always a help," 
McMullen said.

While marijuana grow-ops are getting a lot of attention in Niagara, 
Ravenek said chemical-processing labs, such as meth labs, are 
expected to be the next trend.

"Those are the labs that are a real concern because they are 
dangerous to go into," Ravenek said, explaining health risks due to 
chemicals and gases, fire and explosions, as well as environmental 
issues involving improper exposure.

Children found in those kinds of chemical labs are particularly 
threatened, Ravenek said, because toxic gases and vapours are 
absorbed in their systems faster than adults and they can have 
long-term health effects.

The other type of clandestine lab police expect will inevitably 
surface is extraction labs, which use butane to take oils from 
marijuana leaves and plants to form hash oil.

The new team will be equipped with health and safety equipment to 
enter various drug houses, including marijuana grow operations.

"In the past, officers didn't have proper safety equipment because at 
that time it wasn't mandated," Ravenek said.

Mould and pockets of carbon dioxide, which could cause a person to 
pass out, are just a couple of the dangers that equipment like filter 
respirators, eye protectors and boots will guard against. Officers 
will have meters to check air quality for oxygen and explosive gases, 
as well as disposable coveralls.

Ravenek said extra officers also means the NRP will pay more 
attention to gangs in Niagara, which tend to be tied to strippers and 
prostitution in Niagara Falls.

"The drugs tie into the gangs tie into the grows," Ravenek said. "So 
many things tie those food groups of crime together."
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman