Pubdate: Fri, 09 Apr 2010
Source: London Free Press (CN ON)
Copyright: 2010 The London Free Press
Author: Randy Richmond, London Free Press
Note: part of a series by the London Free Press


THE GROWERS: An Inside Look At London's Marijuana Trade

Slicker than ever, secretive grow operations stashed in London homes
churn out four crops a year of marijuana -- so much pot, police say,
organized crime must be involved.

But staying ahead of savvy growers, reporter Randy Richmond finds, is
no longer as simple as telling the neighbours to be alert.

The couple seemed ordinary enough, at first.

The husband left the house each morning and came home in the

He chatted occasionally with the next-door neighbour, grumbling one
day about taking the weeds out between the cobblestone walk.

"My wife says I should do it," he told the neighbour, then added what
turned out to be an ironic aside: "I hate gardening."

There were, however, a few odd things about the couple.

The neighbour works out of her home, and her kitchen and office
overlook the couple's yard.

"The first day they moved in, the first thing she did was walk around
the side of the house and look at the hydro meter."

Even when the weather finally turned nice late last summer, the couple
kept their windows closed and the air-conditioner off.

There were more oddities. They never moved a couple of old flower pots
left in the yard by the previous owners.

Each time they arrived home, they zipped into the garage so fast they
must have hit the close button on the way in, the neighbour figured.

The wife mysteriously disappeared for a long stretch, supposedly
visiting her family somewhere in Asia.

The neighbour called police.

Four months later, police arrested a 45-year-old Richmond Hill man
after seizing 575 marijuana plants they valued at $575,000, 18 pounds
of processed marijuana valued at $81,000, growing equipment and a car.

It was the last of 42 marijuana grow operations busted in 2009. That
was 10 more than the year before.

This year, London police are on pace to bust more than 50 of the
illegal pot factories.

The Oakridge neighbour's experience reveals much about the people
involved in the booming grow-op business in London.

"The numbers are definitely increasing and the operations are becoming
more sophisticated," says Det. Supt. Ken Heslop, head of the London
police criminal investigation division.

Grow operators are more organized, better at hiding their work and
better at deflecting justice, Heslop says.

The new sophistication begins from the ground up. In the past, grow
operators would usually rent a house, set up the lights and go. But
any kind of problem -- a water leak or power outage, for example --
brought nosey landlords.

Now, grow-op owners buy their own properties.

"They don't risk the chance of an inspection. They are buying it with
(a minimum down payment) and they are trying to buy them in
subdivisions where they blend in," Heslop says.

The people neighbours see are usually only one part of the operation,
he adds. More and more often now, operators hire different people to
do different jobs.

"You would have someone get it ready, do the electrical bypass,
someone does the planning, someone who goes in and tends the plants,
someone who goes in at the end of it and harvests the crop and the
process starts again."

That makes it easy for any one person caught to deny knowing the
others in the operation.

"They isolate the people. If you and I are doing it on different
shifts, you and I might never know each other, might never meet each
other. All we know is our job," Heslop says.

Those running grow-ops generally hire only a small group of people to
keep the chances of chatter to a minimum.

"If you are going to be recruiting someone, it is going to be someone
you know and someone who has no criminal record, so if and when they
do get caught, the penalty is going to be a lot less."

The operators are getting a lot better at keeping their business a
secret, Heslop says.

"A lot of the telltale signs we used to tell people to watch for are
no longer there."

Police used to tell Londoners to watch out for a house that's being

"The people who grow marijuana are onto that, as well. They look after
the houses. They cut the grass. They take care of the shrubs. They
shovel the driveway."

Grow operations, which need lots of power to operate the lights and
heat for plants, used to routinely tap into hydro boxes outside
houses. Now, some operators drill through the wall of a basement to
secretly access electricity lines, Heslop says.

Police still tell neighbours to watch out for people moving large
lights and equipment into a house, and big bags of dirt out.

New suburban houses, though, have large garages with access directly
into the house. That allows operators to simply pull in, close the
garage door, and move equipment in without the prying eyes of neighbours.

A telltale sign of a grow-op used to be the skunky sweet smell of
marijuana drifting from a house. Operators often vented the growing
room through a dryer vent and, eventually, neighbours would get a
whiff of the air.

"Now they often run it through charcoal filters, or vent it into an
inside bedroom, where it is absorbed," Heslop says.

Just how well grow-ops can hide -- for awhile at least -- is evident
in two busts in a new neighbourhood in London's southeast end.

Within six months, police busted two grow-ops a block apart, seizing
2,277 plants worth about $2.3 million.

The couple that moved into one of those homes kept the place neat and
the lawn trimmed, says one neighbour.

"If you saw them walking down the street, you would never have thought
they were doing anything wrong," she says.

The degree of sophistication is just one of many signs to police that
the large-scale operations in London are run by organized crime
groups. But Heslop won't say there's any one particular group
dominating the grow-op business in London.

According to U.S. the Drug Intelligence Center's 2010 threat
assessment, Asian groups in Canada and the U.S. have found a niche
with high-potency marijuana because the drug is not usually trafficked
by Mexican, Colombian or Dominican organizations.

But the report notes that just about anyone can get into

"Asian DTOs (drug trafficking organizations) are willing to co-operate
with other criminal groups to increase their profit and work with
Caucasian, Hispanic, and African American DTOs or criminal groups in
most major cities in an effort to expand their drug distribution and
customer base," the report says.

The real proof for police that organized crime is behind London
grow-ops is the sheer amount of the product.

The average grow-op in London is about 400 plants, Heslop says. That
produces about 50 pounds of marijuana.

With four harvests a year, each grow-op has to get rid of a yearly
crop of 200 pounds of marijuana worth about $1.6 million.

"That is a substantial amount of product to be moving. How do they
dispose of that?" Heslop says.

"That is where organized crime comes in. You have to have links to be
able to sell it. That is not being done by a couple of people in
London deciding they are going to plant 500 plants and end up with 60
pounds and say, 'what are we going to do with this?' There has to be a
market and they have to know how to get it there and what they are
going to do with it at the other end. This is not mom-and-pop. This is
big business." 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jo-D