Pubdate: Thu, 02 Jan 2014
Source: Pique Newsmagazine (CN BC)
Copyright: 2014 Pique Publishing Inc.
Author: Molly Lynch


Canada busts the mom n' pop grow-op while fostering the rise of
biopharmaceutical marijuana

On a bright spring morning in 2012, in the Kootenay region of B.C.,
Emma Wright* dropped her daughters off at their elementary school and
returned to her log house to find three black SUVs parked under the
apple trees and an armed, flak-jacketed RCMP unit in her kitchen. Her
husband Peter* stood by wordlessly as a man dug through the freezer.
In the living room, officers were taking family photo albums off the
shelves. From upstairs there came the thumps and scraping sounds of
furniture being moved. A cop dressed in black led an excited German
shepherd into the bathroom on a tight leash. The officers had a search

The raid lasted eleven hours, Emma Wright says, ending with her and
her husband's arrest on charges of marijuana production for the
purpose of trafficking. Evidence of a grow-op had allegedly been found
in a closet-sized room in their basement.

Three months after the raid, a bailiff came to their door and handed
the Wrights a letter stating that the government was now laying claim
to their house, vegetable gardens, woodshed and swing-set. Though the
existence of the alleged grow-op had yet to be proven in court, the
letter claimed that the Crown already had "reasonable grounds to
believe" that the property had been used to carry out a crime. As the
2005 B.C. Civil Forfeiture Act states, a person's property may be
seized, "even if no person has been charged with an offence that
constitutes unlawful activity [or if] a person charged with an
offence... was acquitted of all charges."

Because the act falls under the civil as opposed to the criminal code,
decisions are made administratively under the assessment of the Civil
Forfeiture Office's (CFO's) unnamed director. While judges used to
hand out mild sentences to small-scale growers on trial, the new act
means punishment for these offences is determined behind closed doors.
Even those who used to grow legally have been shut down by the Harper
government's new medical marijuana regulations, which will prohibit
individuals from growing. Since the Civil Forfeiture Act was
implemented, the CFO, whose stated purpose is to "take the profit out
of crime," has hauled in $41 million.


Since the early 1970s, the remote west Kootenay region of the Purcell
Mountains near the B.C.-Alberta border has been a prime location for
marijuana cultivation. A vast network of inactive logging roads
provided easy access to south-facing clear-cuts where mineral rich
soil was irrigated by glacial spring run-off - perfect conditions for
bud-heavy weed plants. It didn't hurt that there was little to no
police presence between many of the unincorporated lakeside towns,
places with names like Argenta, Rosebery and Glade. And all through
the region, there was an unceasing demand for high quality bud.

The Kootenay region has long been a place where smoking pot is part of
everyday life. Joe De Maria*, a resident of the Slocan Valley, was
part of the original wave of young, idealistic people who converged in
the Kootenays in the '70s. "The valley was idyllic," he says. "In the
beginning, growing marijuana was just part of the mentality. It wasn't
until the '80s that a lot of friends and neighbours started to make
good money from it."

At first, people grew their plants on the mountainsides around their
homes. When they started getting high prices from Calgary and
Vancouver, they began to poll together and export their crops. The
growers shared their horticultural knowledge and their clones,
cultivating stronger, more refined strains.

While they exported around the country, the growers also had a market
ten times the size of Canada's just south of the border. The Kootenays
lie on the 49th parallel; the U.S. is just a hike, or snowmobile ride,
away. "It wasn't until the next generation, when the kids started
growing indoors and taking it across the border, that the industry
blew up," De Maria says. By the early 1990s, logging had all but
ground to a halt and official unemployment rates were high in the
region. Signs of recession, however, were hard to find.


According to the 2011 UN World Drug Report, Canada has the
third-largest pot-smoking population in the world. Not surprisingly,
this means Canadians are not particularly prone to seeing their pot
growers as criminals. In 2003, polls showed for the first time that a
majority of Canadians supported legalization. Today, that figure has
risen to two-thirds. Liberal-minded judges, aware that drug
cultivation has lost much of the stigma it once held, used to give
small-time growers an easy pass: criminal charges were often stayed,
or the cases were thrown out. But under civil forfeiture, with no
trials and no judges to weigh in, individuals and families are now
meeting the same treatment as organized crime rings. Looking at the
punishment of growers, you would never guess that popular attitudes
were so permissive.

In 2007, the Harper government unveiled a $500 million, five-year
National Anti-Drug Strategy aimed at busting cultivators and sellers.
In 2012, the RCMP's five-year budget for investigating marijuana
growers and drug labs grew from $85 million to $113 million. The
Mounties put the money to work; in 2012, the Nelson-area RCMP were
given the first Award of Excellence from the B.C. CFO for seizing over
$75 million in cash and "crime-related" property, most of it from weed
growers, the largest of any such seizure in the province.

Bill Lynch is a Kootenay building inspector (and related to this
reporter). In the last six years, he has been hired to assess the
conditions in approximately 30 homes in the Kootenays as a result of
alleged grow-ops. Lou Morton*, a former Nelson homeowner, was never
charged with a crime when his house was expropriated on the basis of
an alleged grow-op in his basement. He lost his house in 2011 after a
raid in which the police didn't remove any evidence. "They didn't even
bother," Morton says. "It was like they knew that they didn't need to
prove that a crime had been committed in order to get the house."

De Maria works construction in the Slocan Valley, but his retirement
plan was to grow a crop of his own. He was in his early sixties when
he planted his first patch on a clear-cut near his home. At the end of
a hot August long-weekend, he took his truck up the switchback roads
to his patch. The buds on his plants had grown fat; almost enough of
them, he guessed, for the beginning of a modest nest egg. Red morning
sun spilled through the tops of the trees as he dragged a water pipe
from a nearby stream over to the plants. It was then that he heard

"It was like they were in a movie," he says. "They came right up to
me, pointing their guns at my head, yelling, 'Lie down! Get on the
ground!'" He dropped his hose and stood with his arms open as the men
approached him. "You can shoot me," he told the officers. "But I'm not
getting on the ground." The men kept yelling and waving their guns at
him. The water from the hose trickled over the clear cut where
fireweed bloomed pink and blue.

De Maria was arrested on charges of production for the purpose of
trafficking. The anti-drug blitz has hit the whole region hard, not
just growers. Business owners say that times are tough. Statistics put
out by the Kootenay Real Estate Board have shown stagnant sales and
reduced prices over the past five years.


Unlike De Maria, many Kootenay growers were cultivating their crops
legally. Under the previous medical marijuana regime, 30,000 growers
were licensed to provide a wide range of products for prescriptions
around the country, and many of these small-time growers plied their
trade in the Kootenays. Under the 2013 regulations, however,
home-growers will be barred from the medical weed market.

Out in the muskeg borderlands of northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba,
Canada's largest legal grow-op sits 360 metres below ground in vast
defunct mining chambers. Prairie Plant Systems Inc., a multinational
biotechnology pharmaceutical corporation was awarded the first two
licenses under the Conservative government's Marihuana for Medical
Purposes plan.

Prairie Plant Systems is presently using 17,000 square feet for
medical marijuana production; at the time their contract with the
government was announced, the corporation already had over 300,000
square feet ready for new crops.

Gone are the days of planting a nest egg out on the back acre.
Licensed production facilities will now need to have secure vaults,
cameras, alarms and security personnel. The quality of the product
will have to pass Health Canada approval, showing that it's free of
microbes and moisture and that its THC levels are of a pre-approved
consistency. Prairie Plant Systems Inc.'s CanniMed division will
deliver what it calls a "homogenous product." Rather than names, its
strains will be assigned numbers based on their strength. This
"cannabis plant material," they say, "is dried under strict conditions
to ensure proper curing... [and]... monitored for consistency... to
ensure appropriate usability."

The CEO of Prairie Plant Systems, Brent Zettl, assures its main
client, Health Canada, that the product of his labs will have "no
variability, to ensure dose consistency."

"Production will no longer take place in homes and municipal zoning
laws will need to be respected," said Leona Aglukkaq, then health
minister, in the June press release announcing the new plan, intended
to enhance public safety.

After the government laid claim to their log house, Emma Wright and
her kids went to live with Emma's sister while Peter went to work in
the oil fields of Fort McMurray, a place about as culturally remote
from the Kootenays as you can get.

Sitting on the front step of her sister's house, Emma holds a cup of
tea and speaks of their upcoming criminal trials. "I don't understand
what more they want from us," she says. "Penal, financial and public
flogging? We're not Hell's Angels. We're a family. But we've found
ourselves fighting to hold on to that. And all for a law that no one
believes in."

*Names changed to protect identities.

Kootenay writer Molly Lynch, currently a teaching fellow at the Johns
Hopkins Writing Seminars in Baltimore, MD, has written for various
Canadian publications, including The Walrus, Grain and Room, with
forthcoming work in The New Quarterly. This article first appeared in
the Dec. 16, 2013.  
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