HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Part 1 Of 5 - Growbusters
Pubdate: Sat, 13 Apr 2002
Source: Kitchener-Waterloo Record (CN ON)
Copyright: 2002 Kitchener-Waterloo Record
Author: Liz Monteiro
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Series: Part 1 Of 5


Vancouver's Marijuana Home Growers Are Seldom Charged -- Police Just Shut 
Them Down

VANCOUVER -- Six police officers stand with their submachine guns cocked in 
front of a small brown stucco house in Vancouver's east end.

"Show yourself," shout the officers, who are also armed with a search 
warrant. "You won't be harmed."

They suspect there's marijuana growing inside. But the house stands still 
and silent, its windows shielded by blinds.

One cop pounds the door open with a steel ram. Others run to the back of 
the house, thinking their suspects may be running away.

They find a couple fleeing the house next door. A search there reveals the 
pair had been in the middle of sorting their own freshly harvested bud when 
they heard all the police shouting outside and tried to escape.

It's a typical day in the land of the B.C. bud, the world capital of the 
marijuana home grow, where indoor gardeners turn big plants into big bucks, 
then turn around and grow more.

Vancouver has so many home grows, in fact, that police only charge a 
fraction of the people caught running them. Instead, they use a 
controversial community-driven program to simply shut the houses down.

The program has worked well in Vancouver, but it has had the effect of 
squeezing hundreds of growers east to places such as Waterloo Region. 
Police here are now faced with the same problem -- and fear that so far 
they have only seen the tip of the iceberg.

In Vancouver, police lay charges only if "there is 50 pounds of coke in 
there," drug officer Viggo Elvevoll jokes outside a home being searched. He 
is exaggerating, but only slightly.

The man and woman found during this raid are neither arrested nor charged. 
Instead, their plants are sliced near the roots, their 1,000-watt growing 
bulbs are taken and their hydro and gas services are cut off.

"We would like to charge every time, but we would have 50,000 grows if 
that's all we did," said Sgt. Rollie Woods, a 28-year police veteran and 
head of the Vancouver police drug unit.

In British Columbia, the number of marijuana grow houses has skyrocketed 
since 1991, when there were 23 busts. Last year, police raided 609 houses, 
laying 375 charges against fewer than 200 people.

Of those houses, 455 were "ripped" by officers assigned to Growbusters, a 
Vancouver-based program involving police, neighbourhood groups and city 

The initiative allows the police -- with fire inspectors and city engineers 
- -- to dismantle pot grows by ripping out plants, cutting utilities and 
seizing expensive light bulbs.

What they don't do is arrest people.

Like bug-infested nests, the neighbourhoods of Vancouver's east end are 
swarming with homes full of dope -- so much that even a newcomer can easily 
point them out.

The first telltale sign is the smell.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, the scent of pot wafts through the air along 
a tree-lined street. An elderly woman holding grocery bags stuffed with 
fresh vegetables from a nearby market exchanges pleasantries with another 
woman pushing a little girl in a stroller. They continue on their way and 
the smell of pot lingers.

Here in British Columbia, marijuana is a $6-billion industry, a bigger 
economic factor than such traditional money-makers as lumber.

The reason is simple. There is big money to be made. In British Columbia 
and Ontario, a pound of pot (just under half a kilogram) sells for about 
$2,500. By the time it reaches the American border, the same bud is worth 
about $6,000 in New York (all figures Canadian) and as much as $9,000 in 

Police say the pot is sneaked across the border in various ways -- by 
plane, by boat and sometimes even in gym bags that are lugged through 
wooded areas beyond the eyes of customs officials.

A farmer growing 300 plants can harvest a crop worth about $300,000 after 
four months.

With three successful crops in a year, the total harvest from one home can 
gross more than $1 million, police say.

Critics dispute those figures. Pot advocates say police inflate the prices 
to impress politicians and help promote the approval of bigger police budgets.

Whatever side of the fence you're on, it's clear that growing marijuana in 
homes is a big-money venture that's already come our way.

In Waterloo Region, the surge in pot-grow busts began in June 2000 -- about 
the same time Vancouver launched Growbusters.

Since then, police say, they have made 91 raids relating to grow houses. 
And there are hundreds more, they add.

"It's like standing in the Bay of Fundy and kicking the tide out. We have 
to make sure we don't drown," says Staff Sgt. Ray Massicotte, head of the 
Waterloo regional police drug squad.

In Vancouver, where there are up to 10,000 grow houses in the city and as 
many as 20,000 more in the surrounding 23 municipalities, police say the 
growers are packing up and moving east.

Spreading faster than Tim Hortons coffee shops, the pot farmers are moving 
into southern Ontario, some hired from as far away as Australia.

As in British Columbia, the vast majority of growers here are of Vietnamese 
descent. In Vancouver, about 85 per cent of pot farmers are Vietnamese, 
whereas in Waterloo Region, nearly every raid to date has led to charges 
against members of the Vietnamese community, police say.

Last summer, regional police raided 10 houses in one sweep, arresting 22 
people, all of Vietnamese descent and all connected. The kingpin of the 
"criminal cell," as police often call such groups, was Ba Thuan Tran, 56. 
Members of his family -- sons, daughters and sons-in-law -- were also arrested.

Before moving to Kitchener, Tran had lived in Vancouver. In April 2000, he 
was busted at his Vancouver home while he was "cropping the grow" -- 
cutting plants and hanging them to dry. Inside the house Vancouver police 
found 319 marijuana plants and 80 pounds of bud.

Tran was sentenced to six months of house arrest and the B.C. judge allowed 
him to serve the sentence living with relatives in Kitchener.

Within a year, he was facing similar charges here.

Arrested with Tran were two other men, including My Quang Le, 52, of Cedar 
Street in Kitchener.

A year later, Le was arrested for growing marijuana at a home on Cranston 
Avenue in Cambridge.

Local drug officers agree it's no coincidence that Waterloo Region's 
pot-grow problems began after Vancouver launched Growbusters.

Police are supposed to arrest criminals, not let them go, they say.

Growbusters was initially a tough sell with Vancouver police, but it now 
has their support. They credit the program for getting pot farmers to leave 
their city.

British Columbia's court system, already overloaded with pot cases, 
couldn't deal with the program.

"There are so many of them, it's like trying to pick up jaywalkers on a 
busy downtown street. They are everywhere," says Woods, the Vancouver drug 
unit chief.

Vancouver police keep an "active" grow list with at least 750 addresses. 
Some have been on the list for two weeks, others more than a year.

Growbusters is made up of five detectives and one sergeant. They work 
closely with Woods and his "Green Team" of six detectives. If Growbusters 
thinks charges should be laid, Woods gets a call and his officers conduct 
the investigation.

But only 20 per cent cent of Growbusters raids lead to criminal charges, 
says Woods. By comparison, Waterloo regional police have nine investigators 
and two supervisors in their drug squad -- but along with pot grows, it 
investigates other drug crimes as well.

Growbusters raids about 10 houses a week. The goal is to hurt the pot 
growers in the pocketbook by shutting down as many houses as it can.

"Our strategy is to try and get to the guy who is controlling five or six 
houses, rather than picking off one here and there where you are getting 
perhaps just the gardener," Woods says.

"If you lose one crop, it's the cost of doing business. You lose 10 crops 
and all your equipment and you are in trouble."

In the neighbourhoods of East Vancouver, the community's support for 
Growbusters is evident.

Mary Stojanovic, president of a resident council that oversees a 150-unit 
condominium complex, can often be seen walking about the complex late at 
night, peeking through blind-covered windows and "dumpster diving" (looking 
in garbage bins) for signs of a grow house.

She even monitors hydro meters in the electrical room, looking for units 
with higher-than-normal readings.

As a realtor, Stojanovic visits lots of homes and has developed a nose for 
detecting places where home grow operations may have been located.

Nail holes on trim around the windows, for example, may show where 
something was hung to block the light. And bits of tape on the walls may 
once have been used to hold up sheets of Mylar, a polyester film used to 
reflect more light on to the plants.

Two houses have been busted in her neighbourhood and Stojanovic said she 
thinks a third grower was pressured into dismantling his operation. During 
a recent "smell walk" about the complex, she saw large amounts of potting 
soil in a flower garden outside a vacated unit.

On previous walks, she said, there was condensation on the windows from 
indoor humidity. The blinds were never open and the flicker of a television 
was visible day and night.

"I wish he had been busted, but I'm glad he's gone," she says. "This whole 
thing is so destabilizing and we can't keep living in fear."

Chris Taulu, executive director of the Collingwood Community Policing 
Centre in Vancouver, said she hears such stories again and again. A big 
supporter of the Growbusters program, she was among those in 1999 who 
convinced Vancouver politicians to pay for the team.

It was hard for police to buy into it, but Growbusters has cleared some 
neighbourhoods of the home grower problem, the feisty 64-year-old says.

"The community doesn't really care how you do it," she says. "They wouldn't 
care if you shot them in the middle of the street. As long as the bad guys 
are out of my neighbourhoods."

Taulu says laying criminal charges didn't solve the problem in Vancouver.

"From the community's perspective, this was the only way to get rid of 
them. If money is the object, let's stop them from making money, because 
that is the only way to make them go away."

Waterloo regional police are "keenly" looking at the Growbusters program, 
Chief Larry Gravill said.

But there's a concern, he said, that a lack of charges "might set a 
precedent for the judicial system. We don't want to be in a situation where 
we are thwarting the courts.

"Simply dismantling the operation and not following through with charges . 
. . it's a tough thing for us to wrestle with as police."

Taulu's response? Police need to put their egos aside and give up a little 

"With Growbusters, the whole neighbourhood is happy," she said. "You tell 
me which way we as taxpayers will prefer to go."
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