Pubdate: Fri, 16 Jan 2009
Source: Burnaby Newsleader (CN BC)
Copyright: 2009 Burnaby Newsleader
Author: Tom Fletcher
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Canada)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)
Bookmark: (Cocaine)


VICTORIA - There's one area of B.C. business investment that's seen a
boom in rural areas. Unfortunately, it's organized crime.

You may have heard the saga of Likely, a tiny community east of
Williams Lake. Last fall RCMP confirmed results of a two-year
investigation that found eight properties with buildings fitted for
large-scale marijuana growing. At least one of those has been seized
under civil forfeiture legislation, a powerful new tool in targeting
proceeds of crime. Nine Lower Mainland residents, all with Asian
names, were charged.

Are there more Likelys out there? No doubt the gangs learned about the
hazards of creating a cluster in one place.

Just before New Year's Day, police used snowmobiles to raid a property
near Clearwater, north of Kamloops. They described it as a machine
shed with industrial-style wiring that appeared to have been built for
a grow-op.

Further north, Houston RCMP resorted to using their holding cells to
store masses of seized hydroponic equipment. That's according to
deputy RCMP commissioner Gary Bass, who spoke to a conference on the
hazards of grow-ops in Surrey last May.

The problem goes beyond marijuana, a relatively benign drug. Bass
noted that the popularity of "B.C. bud" has led to many new players in
the cocaine trade. Even small local groups tend to have ties to bikers
in southern B.C. who have developed lucrative bud-for-blow
arrangements reaching down to South America.

And when bullets fly in B.C. communities, there are generally hard
drugs, often cocaine, involved.

Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis spearheaded a new approach that targets
safety hazards of bad wiring and high electricity consumption. In 2006
the B.C. government passed legislation allowing municipalities to
obtain hydro records showing high-consumption properties, then inspect
those properties. Piloted in Surrey and Abbotsford, the approach has
since been adopted in Coquitlam, Langley Township, Mission, Pitt
Meadows, Port Coquitlam, Richmond, Surrey and Vancouver.

Recent hydro records show a 20 per cent drop in high-consumption
properties around the Lower Mainland. Now Garis fears the problem has
simply been displaced to more remote sites.

Gangs adapt quickly, buying power instead of stealing it, or going off
the grid with generators in remote places. Small towns have few police
resources, and can't afford electrical inspection teams on their own.

Garis points to a recent survey of hydroponic equipment stores that
found more than 80 in all regions of B.C., compared to 13 in Alberta
and nine in Washington state. Police, firefighters and business groups
supported a resolution at a recent municipal convention, calling on
the B.C. government to require an electrical permit for buyers of
high-powered lights and hydroponic gear. So far the government is

I asked Solicitor General John van Dongen why. He said his priority
lately has been finding ways to regulate another illicit trade, metal
theft. (A court decision two years ago said municipalities can't
require pawn shops or scrap dealers to record sellers' identities.)
He's also concerned about restricting legitimate hydroponic farming.

"I'm going to take a bit more time to look at the hydroponic issue,"
he said.

Garis says other provinces are acting. In 2006 Manitoba agreed to pay
for electrical inspections, instead of leaving it to communities that
can't afford it, as B.C. is doing.

"We're a world crime superpower predicated on marijuana," a frustrated
Garis told me. "Eighty per cent of what we're growing here is being
distributed corporately to other provinces, the United States and elsewhere.

"We've made a booming business out of it because we're resting on our
laurels, saying, oh, we don't want to regulate, and yet this thing
just spirals out of control. It's ridiculous."

Prohibition doesn't work

Before you start e-mailing me about the ultimate futility of
prohibiting marijuana, let me say I agree.

Former prime minister Paul Martin's government came close to
decriminalizing possession of small amounts of pot, which could have
begun to replace violent gangs with small-scale, benign growers.

Needless to say, Stephen Harper's Conservatives aren't keen. They
prefer mandatory minimum sentences for offenders, which sounds great
until you look at the state of our court and prison system.

If we could somehow solve drug gang violence, our courts would soon be
quiet. Last week an Abbotsford man was sentenced to 12 years for
attempted murder. He shot another man four times over a $140 drug debt.

Ethnic gang realities

Before you start e-mailing me about the reference to "Asian names,"
here's how the RCMP broke down gang activity as of 2005.

They identified 108 groups, one quarter motorcycle gangs, nine per
cent Asian triad-related (focused on heroin and diversifying into
chemical precursors for meth and such), nine per cent Indo-Canadian,
eight per cent Eastern European, and the remaining third independents,
mostly Caucasian.

As of last year, police had the capacity to investigate about one in
four identified groups, so they rank them with a threat assessment.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press
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MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin