Pubdate: Mon, 17 Mar 2008
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Copyright: 2008 Guardian Newspapers Limited
Author: Misha Glenny


Think of drugs, and you think of Colombia, Thailand, Afghanistan. But
Canada? Nice, peaceful, dull Canada? Believe it or not, there are
parts of the country where cannabis provides more jobs than logging,
mining, oil and gas combined. Misha Glenny investigates, in the first
of two extracts from his new book on organised crime

"Open the back for me, please, Dan." Quiet yet firm - that's how they
speak around Metaline Falls, in the far north of Washington State. Dan
Wheeler walked around his pick-up truck and unbolted the tray. "Let's
clear away all that stuff, please, Dan." Wheeler started hauling the
grubby but neatly piled strips of chromium that were lying on the
flatbed. The US customs officer at the border with Canada helped by
shifting the snow chains, toolbox, rags, oilcans and the detritus
common to an artisan's vehicle.

"I'd like a look at the propane tank, please, Dan." Wheeler skipped
under the car to unbolt the thick mesh that shielded the tank - a mesh
that another border official had recommended as protection against an
explosion if the truck were back-ended. Stooping deliberately, the
customs officer positioned his nose just above the propane tank's
outlet valve. A jet of noxious gas flew up and the guard straightened
smartly. Then he tapped the fuel gauge, which shimmered gently - the
normal reaction.

"Thank you, Dan. What fuel is the truck running on right now?"

"I'm not sure. Gasoline, I think."

"Switch it over to the propane, please, Dan, and turn on the engine."

Dan switched the fuel supply and started cranking the engine.

Nothing. He tried again. Then again. On the third try, the liquid
petroleum gas (also known as LPG or propane) reached the carburettor
and the motor burst into life. The officer bent down and breathed in
the exhaust from the pipe. He could tell from the fumes that this was
propane; it has a very different odour from petrol. He had ascertained
what he needed to know: that Dan Wheeler was not smuggling BC bud, one
of the most popular and potent brands of cannabis in the world, from
Canada into the United States.

These elaborate tests were necessary; the only other way he could have
established Dan's innocence would be by sawing open the LPG tank. And
the resulting explosion would have blown apart him and everything else
within a 500-yard radius.

"OK, Dan. Just come on into the office to fill in the forms and you'll
be on your way!"

Wheeler fumed. "Hey, can you at least give me a hand with reloading
the car?" The officer turned and grimaced before reluctantly helping.

As he headed away from eastern British Columbia through the
spectacular evergreen forest of Colville National Park towards the
slush and wooden shacks of Metaline Falls itself, Dan's mood darkened.
How many times had he been through that damn border? And how many
times did he have to take his whole truck apart? And he knew that they
liked him. There weren't many of their regulars who could talk with
such authority about the things those boys loved - guns, hunting and

"I guess that's why they're so good at their job," Dan thought. He was
sincerely impressed by their thoroughness, even though it
inconvenienced him most times he travelled.

By the time he arrived at the storage compound in Spokane, Washington
State, Dan's spirits had brightened, but he was on alert. After
entering the pin code to the main gate, he started unloading the
chrome strips into his rental lock-up under the arbitrary gaze of the
CCTV cameras. Finally, he drove the truck into the space, closed the
door and hooked up his lamp to the cigarette lighter.

"With my toolkit," he later told me, "I dove underneath the truck,
careful to place a little blanket underneath so I didn't pick up too
much dirt - it's those little touches that make the difference between
professionals like me and the amateurs who will at some point get
caught." Removing the mesh, as he had done at the border, Dan then
unbolted the propane tank and swung it around 90 degrees.

Telling me the story inside his voluminous garage and workshop, Dan
demonstrated the routine with the propane tank. "You can't tell by
looking at it, but if you chisel away at the right place with a
screwdriver and a hammer, you bust away this glass-fibre body filler,
which I use to cover up a socket," Dan explained. He then started to
unscrew a small square nut. Pang! "There we go!" he exclaimed with a
broad smile. And the end of the tank came off.

There was no mighty explosion. Instead, I saw small-bore copper tubes
inside, which ran from the external sniffer valve, gauges and fuel
pipe to a small cylinder of propane intended to fire camping stoves.

"The truck actually runs for 15 kilometres on the propane, and of
course if anyone checks the sniffer valves or the fuel gauge,
everything appears to be normal," said Dan proudly.

When he followed this procedure in the Spokane lockup, the remainder
of the tank was stuffed with 50lb of bud from British Columbia - or
God's Country, as the locals call it, in honour of its wealth of
natural beauty and resources. "That compound was my hot zone," Dan
recalled earnestly. "Even when you've taken every precaution
imaginable, you can still hear the squeal of the Feds' tyres in your
mind. There was no retreat from the lockup and no possibility of
talking your way out of 50lb and $200k in cash."

In British Columbia, Canada's westernmost province, 50lb of bud was
worth US$55,000 (about UKP27,500) at wholesale prices. In Spokane, two
and a half hours from the border, its value had almost doubled to
$100,000. If Dan could be bothered (which he often could), the trip to
California added another $50,000 to his haul. If he drove it to
Kentucky, he could sell it for $200,000 - almost four times the value
in British Columbia.

The turnover of Dan's business was $100,000 a week with minimal
capital outlay. As Stephen Easton of the venerable Simon Fraser
Institute in Vancouver has noted, the profits from this trade are
seductive even for its most junior participants. "For a modest
marijuana growing operation of 100 plants, harvest revenue ... amounts
to slightly less than $20,000. With four harvests a year, gross
revenue is nearly $80,000. A conservatively high estimate of
production cost is about $25,000. The return on invested money is
potentially high: around 55%."

For the ordinary folk of western Canada, nothing competes financially.
For the pros, like Dan and his buddies, it comes close to being a
licence to print money. "I was part of a three-man team," Dan
continued. "Marty coordinated all the grow ops to deliver the 50lb per
week - that's no easy job. Much of it came from his own farms, but
some smaller ops sold to him, and you have to maintain the quality.
This is a highly competitive market and the guys we sold to, they knew
their shit real good." Michael, the third partner, coordinated sales
in the US. "Look," said Michael, whose laid-back appearance conformed
much more to the hippyish stereotype than Dan's 
look, "there are a lot of problems - not just the question of your
clients' reliability, but the security issues. God knows how many
cellphones we use: we only use 'em for a week or so, then we chuck 'em
away. There's a real damn problem remembering all the different phone

The trio dissolved their partnership in 2005, but while it was in
place Dan was in many ways the linchpin of the operation. "The
bottle-neck has always been in getting the stuff into the US," Michael
explained. "But that's the big market - there's 30 million Canadians,
but everyone in Canada either grows it themselves or has a buddy who
does, even in Vancouver or back east. There's close to 300 million
Americans, and that's a massive market. Taking it to market, that's
the real pro work, and that was Dan's niche."

Marty, Michael and Dan are part of an industry that the British
Columbia Organised Crime Agency valued at $4bn in 2001. It is now
worth one-third more, according to most estimates, which means it
accounts for more than 5% of the province's GDP. Around 100,000
workers are engaged both full time and part time in the cultivation,
distribution, smuggling and retail of marijuana, compared with 55,000
working in the traditional sectors of logging, mining, oil and gas
combined. Only manufacturing employs more people, and this is all
according to official statistics from Canadian law

Although British Columbia remains the main producer, the farming of
marijuana has been spreading steadily eastwards through Canada over
the past 10 years and most provinces now boast a flourishing industry.

The implications of these figures are stark: western Canada is home to
the largest per-capita concentration of organised criminal syndicates
in the world. In turn, Canada has become one of the biggest
law-enforcement headaches anywhere: organised crime has broken out of
the ghetto of marginal communities and conquered the middle classes.
"In a town like Nelson," says Dan, "I would estimate that about 30% of
households are involved in grow-ops of some size or other, but in the
Slocan valley, I reckon between half and 70% of the households will be

 From atop the reassuring slopes of Elephant Mountain (so called 
because it resembles a
dozing pachyderm) I gaze across the west arm of Kootenay lake at 
Nelson's rooftops,
stacked prettily up a steep green incline. Beyond looms the sharp 
peak of Silver King,
the mountain whose precious metal deposits attracted large numbers of 
immigrants from
southern and eastern Europe at the turn of the 19th century. To this 
day, this twee
settlement resembles the idealised image of small-town America before 
it was blighted by
unregulated advertising hoardings and fast-food joints. Almost every 
store in Nelson has
a picture of its manager or owner with their arms around Steve Martin 
and Daryl Hannah,
in commemoration of the time when the town was indeed transformed 
into America for the
filming of Roxanne, a feeble update of Cyrano de Bergerac. Hollywood 
likes Nelson: for
its unspoilt looks; for its stunning countryside; and because, of an 
evening, the film
crews get to smoke Cuban cigars and fat joints packed with BC bud.

But despite these attractions, Nelson and the surrounding area have
been in steady economic decline for a couple of decades. Although its
tourist and media industries are growing, these have not yet
compensated for the demise of mining and the crises that have
afflicted the logging industry. George Bush dealt the most punishing
blow to British Columbia's economy in recent years by imposing a 27%
tax on imports of Canadian softwood - since ruled to be an outright
violation of America's free-trade responsibilities. The Canadian
government calculated that in three years after the tax was imposed in
May 2002, some 7,000 jobs were permanently lost in logging, sawmilling
and remanufacturing across British Columbia. "Including indirect
impacts," it added, "job losses have risen to a reported 14,000. A
common myth assumes that these impacts will disappear with a
settlement in the softwood dispute and that jobs will come back, but
this is not the case."

Many of those who once worked in the traditional industries have been
quick to redeploy their skills into producing vast quantities of
marijuana, as I discovered on a trip into British Columbia's interior.
Three of the four annual harvests are produced exclusively indoors
(products of the summer outdoor harvest are often sought after by
connoisseurs, but your average consumer can usually be counted on not
to give a damn). But the word "indoors" does not quite do justice to
the extraordinary installations in which some of the plants are grown.

As our 4x4 embarks on the forest road, I am reminded of the train ride
in Friedrich Durrenmatt's dark surrealist novella, The Tunnel. As the
train goes deeper into a tunnel, the dank bricks wrap themselves ever
tighter around the carriages, forcing the travellers to confront their
worst nightmares.

At first, the province's interior is not quite as threatening as
Durrenmatt's tunnel - the leaves are not so dense as to block all the
sun as we rush northwards for an hour, maybe two, through the towering
evergreens. But eventually the sun is bound to set and there are no
cellphone signals here. If the vehicle breaks down, then the living
nightmares of British Colombia's infinite interior will appear.
Trekking home is out of the question; the terrain is littered with a
plant known as the devil's club. These tough stalks, three to four
feet tall, are topped by a ball covered in vicious spikes. As you walk
through them, the club swings back and rips deep into human flesh. But
the great fear is the grizzly bear. The world's most powerful natural
predator, the grizzly plays cat-and-mouse with its victim, breaking
its bones and its will, then laying it in a shallow grave before
returning three days later to munch on the body after it has softened
up. Thank God I've come here with a group of professionals.

The three men look, smell and move like loggers, their senses finely
attuned to the outback. As well as scanning for signs of grizzlies,
they keep their ears open for the distant twitter of helicopter
rotors. "Could be game wardens, could be RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted
Police], could be DEA," one mutters. They talk like loggers, too,
which is almost never.

I thought it was tough terrain for the 4x4, but when we finally arrive
at the clearing that is our destination, I am rendered speechless by
the vision of a mustard-coloured industrial digger. How do industrial
diggers travel to the middle of nowhere? Even more impressive are the
two sea-going containers, each 40ft long, which are sunk into an
enormous hole in the forest. Accessible only through a door reached by
some makeshift stairs cut into the ground, they are easily covered
over with earth if concealment becomes necessary. The containers are
humming. Cables lead into the forest. "Proximity to a power cable is
an important factor in the location," says Jim, who has rigged up the
electric supply. Jim used to work on the dams that have helped to turn
the province into one of the world's biggest power suppliers.
"Basically, in order to get the power from the main cables, I have to
build a series of substations capable of reducing the voltage until we
reach the grow-op."

Inside the two sea containers, hundreds upon hundreds of freshly
planted cannabis saplings are starting to crane towards the equally
numerous halogen lamps. This facility also has a system of CO2
injections, as one of the horticulturalists explains to me. "You are
much more in control of the environment if you introduce CO2 at the
right time of the day and night. The more CO2 you give 'em, the more
they like it - they grow into fatter, healthier plants. It increases
their potency and you can double the yield and beyond."

Of the many things British Columbia has in abundance, space and
electricity have been decisive in transforming it into one of the
world's great marijuana farms. Space, because the RCMP and the US's
Drug Enforcement Agency just cannot find the majority of the largest
grow-ops (especially when they are hidden underground in sea
containers). "The DEA may have unlimited access to British Columbia,"
Senator Larry Campbell, the former mayor of Vancouver, told me, "but
do you know how many logging trails there are? I mean, you can bring
in every Black Hawk helicopter you want. Forget the haystack - you're
looking for a needle in a jungle!" As for electricity, the lamps
feeding the cannabis may need huge amounts of power by domestic
standards, but by the standards of the province's vast hydroelectric
capacity, the usage is negligible.

Back home in the Slocan valley at the end of another tough day, Dan
places one of his favourite TV shows in the VCR. "You're going to love
this," he says. "This'll show you just how dumb Americans can be!"

CBC's Talking with Americans travels the length and breadth of the US 
encouraging the
locals to give their reactions to fictitious events in contemporary 
Canada: the opening
of the country's first university, perhaps, or its annual abandonment 
of unproductive
pensioners on the ice floes. "Congratulations, Canada!" a New York 
woman gushes in all
seriousness, "On your first 100 miles of paved highway!"
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MAP posted-by: Derek