HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Pot Farms Conceal Deadly Risks
Pubdate: Sat, 15 Jun 2002
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Contact:  2002, The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Mira Oberman
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Canada)


Hydro Stolen To Run The Hydroponic Labs Has Led To Fires And Fears Of

Neighbours say the first sign of trouble was when smoke started billowing
out the second-floor windows. The next was when the police started knocking
on their doors.

Days after bags of marijuana plants were hauled out of the unassuming brick
house, people who live nearby were still shocked to learn a drug lab had
been established on their quiet central Toronto street.

They might never have found out if it weren't for the sparks from a badly
installed breaker panel the growers were using to steal power from nearby
hydro lines.

Fire has become an all too common business risk for basement marijuana
producers who pirate electricity to avoid being detected by police forces
and hydro utilities that watch for the unusual consumption patterns created
by hydroponic operations.

That, in turn, has become a problem for neighbours who have no clue that the
home next to them is sheltering a small part of a pervasive illegal

In the past year in the Toronto area alone, more than two dozen of these
suburban, indoor farms have caught fire.

The Peterborough Avenue lab busted on June 1 is just one of thousands that
have popped up in homes across Canada, as organized crime rings look to
expand beyond the overcrowded Vancouver area. And with complex ventilation
systems and thousands of dollars of professional greenhouse equipment
ensuring the plants attain the perfect yield and potency, most are not
mom-and-pop operations.

"We've been in some houses where you can't move because every room has been
converted into grow labs," said John Nielsen, acting superintendent of the
Peel Regional Police. "This is big business. It's driven by money and profit
and the profit in this is huge."

Police estimate there could be as many as 10,000 hydroponic marijuana labs
hidden in houses across Southern Ontario. With an average yield of about
1,200 plants a year, it's a $12-billion industry, and the province's most
valuable cash crop.

Aside from bringing gangland-style slayings to the suburbs -- three
hydroponic operators have been shot or beaten to death in the greater
Toronto area in the past three months -- the mix of water, electricity and
fertilizer could pose a deadly risk for unsuspecting neighbours.

The scenario that disturbs police is a small child running into a nearby
yard after a heavy rain. There's a live bypass cut into the underground
hydro line and the child is electrocuted.

It hasn't happened, but it's possible, cautioned Ralph Van Haeren, a general
manager at Ontario's Electrical Safety Authority.

The ESA has inspected 472 busted grow houses across Ontario this year. In
some, the rewiring looked professionally done. In others, entire sections of
the house were buzzing with electricity.

"They might have 30,000 to 40,000 watts of lights installed just in the
basement. This electricity provides a fair bit of heat and the rewiring
isn't very good," he said. "There are also often huge bundles of wiring
passing through holes in the floors or the walls and many of the circuits
are overloaded.

"We're setting the stage for something really bad to happen here."

Two years after sophisticated hydroponic operations started showing up in
Southern Ontario, emergency workers are still trying to get a handle on the

Police have started training firefighters to recognize drug labs so they can
avoid being caught in chemical soups with ventilation systems fanning the

Utilities are having some success tracking down the millions of dollars of
electricity being stolen to feed the plants.

Crown attorneys are asking for stiffer sentences. Politicians are
considering tougher laws. Children's Aid agents are taking children away
from parents who live in the grow houses.

A public-relations campaign has been started to encourage people to keep an
eye out for houses with blacked-out or covered windows, strange vents, and
skunky odours.

But police caution even that won't be enough to get rid of the indoor labs.

"I don't think we're going to eliminate them. As long as there's profit in
the act, people are going to do it," said Staff Sergeant Ray Massicotte of
the Waterloo Regional Police. "Our goal is to make it so difficult it's not
profitable any more."

A major impediment to cracking down further on hydroponic labs is the lack
of police resources. It costs about $10,000 to $15,000 of police work to
shut down a single operation and drug squads in some regions are now
discovering five to 10 labs a week. Others said they could stop even more if
they had the time and money. Dr. Stephen Easton, a senior fellow at the
Fraser Institute, said trying to keep up with the criminals doesn't make
sense. While he said there are a number of political reasons why marijuana
remains an illegal substance, he argued that legalizing it would save
taxpayers a lot of trouble and earn the government hundreds of millions of
dollars in lost income.

"On the economic side of things, it sure looks like a profitable thing to
do, so why would we throw it away into the hands of unsavoury criminals?" he
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