HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Police Brace for Nasty Turf War
Pubdate: Sat, 25 Sep 2004
Source: Victoria Times-Colonist (CN BC)
Copyright: 2004 Times Colonist
Author: Chad Skelton; With files from Jack Knox and Neal Hall
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Canada)
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Heroin)
Bookmark: (Outlaw Bikers)


Economics go to pot: Police intelligence indicates a crash in the wholesale
marijuana price, and that means rival gangs 'are going to have to eliminate
some competition.'

A recent drop in the price of marijuana in B.C. could lead to increased
gang violence as rival organized-crime groups battle for control of the
$6-billion pot trade, police say.

Insp. Paul Nadeau, of the RCMP's Coordinated Marijuana Enforcement Team,
said B.C.'s rapidly expanding marijuana trade has been relatively stable
for the past several years, with rival gangs sharing the trade's immense

But recent police intelligence indicates the wholesale price of marijuana
has dropped dramatically in recent months, from around $2,500 a pound to as
low as $1,500.

And with fewer profits to go around, Nadeau said, police are bracing for a
violent turf war.

"If they make less money next year, they'll be trying very hard to bring it
back to where they were. And they're going to have to eliminate some
competition to do that," Nadeau said.

There is also concern innocent bystanders could get hurt.

Several innocent people in the Lower Mainland have already fallen victim to
mistaken "grow rips" -- in which criminals attempting to steal marijuana
plants hit the wrong address, assaulting and terrorizing the unknowing

In the 1980s and early 1990s, police say, the province's marijuana trade
was dominated by outlaw motorcycle gangs like the Hells Angels and a
smaller number of independent, "mom and pop" operations.

But since the mid-1990s, according to police intelligence reports,
Vietnamese gangs have come to dominate the province's pot trade.

That dominance was highlighted in a recent study by the University College
of the Fraser Valley that looked at all marijuana police files in the
province from 1997 to 2000.

In 1997, five per cent of marijuana growing suspects identified in
Vancouver were of Vietnamese origin, the study found. By 2000, they made up
87 per cent.

The trend was the same, if less dramatic, for the province as a whole --
with the percentage of Vietnamese suspects rising from two per cent to 39
per cent over the same three-year period -- a nearly 20-fold increase. And,
according to police, Vietnamese gangs have further consolidated their hold.

Sgt. Gord Friesen, head of the Surrey RCMP drug section, said about 90 per
cent of the suspects arrested for marijuana growing in his city now are

Even when they don't make an arrest, police can usually tell which crime
group a grow-op belongs to just by looking at the growing techniques --
Hells Angels prefer a hydroponic water bath system and Asian gangs grow pot
in soil.

Police say Vietnamese gangs have become increasingly sophisticated and
systematic in establishing growing operations. Often in concert with
corrupt real estate agents, the gangs purchase or lease houses that meet
their specific needs -- ideally with a chimney, for venting out fumes, and
unfinished basements to make wiring the operation easier.

Then, dedicated crews -- usually including a professional electrician -- go
out and set up the grow.

"You'll see an electrician come in with a number of individuals with
electrical equipment and they will work day and night as quickly as they
possibly can to get it up and running," said Friesen.

The gangs then typically recruit recent immigrants to tend the plants in
exchange for living in the house rent-free. A separate team of harvesters
comes every few months to take the plants.

According to an RCMP intelligence report produced two years ago, police had
some concerns that the Vietnamese gangs' rapid takeover of the pot trade
could lead to conflicts with biker gangs.

"There were, as expected, some violent clashes, but so far the two
organizations appear to have opted for respective tolerance," states the
report, completed in November 2002.

But it warned that there was no way of knowing "how long this tacit peace
agreement will last."

Nadeau said it appears motorcycle gangs have largely ceded the job of
growing marijuana to the Vietnamese, instead taking on a greater role as
brokers -- buying and selling marijuana in large quantities, or trading it
for cocaine.

"You have different groups acquiring a level of expertise in a certain area
and they work together to get the product to consumers," he said.

But Nadeau said it's unlikely that co-operation will continue if the drop
in price means there are fewer profits to share.

"There's enough money to go around [now]," he said.

"When that starts to change, and the market starts to suffer, there's going
to be certain groups undoubtedly who are going to be wanting to steal the
share that's presently controlled by other groups."

Nadeau said the recent drop in pot prices is due to a number of factors.

The first is that increased security at the U.S. border since the Sept. 11,
2001, attacks has made it more difficult to smuggle marijuana south --
meaning B.C. has been flooded with excess product.

And the other major markets for B.C. bud -- Ontario and Quebec -- are
increasingly producing their own hydroponic marijuana.

In the past, Nadeau said, B.C. produced well over half of all the marijuana
in Canada. Now, while B.C. still produces more than any other province, its
share has dropped to about 40 per cent.

"My personal belief is that over time we may see more marijuana grown in
the east than here, simply because the market in the east is much larger
than here," he said.

Police have estimated the value of B.C.'s marijuana industry at about $6
billion a year -- making it the province's most lucrative crop.

On Vancouver Island, RCMP helicopter patrols search for outdoor operations
every summer. Last year more than 600 sites were identified with 44,000
plants at half the sites cut down or ripped up.

Among the best busts was a 3,500-plant plantation at Qualicum within a
couple of kilometres of the new highway. Near Port Hardy, police found
1,200 plants with stalks so thick they needed chainsaws to cut through them
rather than the usual machetes. (Clippers get gummed up by resin.)

An outdoor operation yields one crop a year, as opposed to three or four
for an indoor site, but the risk of arrest is slight. After a grower sets
up on Crown land or remote forest company property and puts in an automated
watering system, they only need to visit the site a couple of times before

Outside growers have tailored their operations to evade detection. They
cross breed big, bushy plants of the sativa strain with shorter, stouter
indica plants to create a product that is supposed to be less visible from
the air. Some use camouflage netting.

Increasingly, police are finding a scale of operation that requires the
money and distribution system provided by organized crime groups.

Operators are using solar panels, helicopters for choice remote areas,
all-terrain vehicles and excavators.

Nadeau said the marijuana export trade has become the No.1 money-maker for
organized crime groups, which use profits from the trade to finance other
ventures, such as the importation of cocaine and guns.

"It's becoming more and more apparent that every organized crime group is
looking to grow-ops to generate money that supports other criminal
activity," said Nadeau. "It's become their money machine."

Det. Jim Fisher, a Vancouver police department expert on Asian gangs, said
even Chinese gangs such as the Big Circle Boys, which traditionally focused
on importing heroin into B.C., are getting involved in pot.

"The profit is as good as heroin," said Fisher. "I don't think people
understand how big it is. It's changed the dynamic of organized crime here."

One recent intelligence report estimated that a typical marijuana grow-op
offers a 55-per-cent return on investment in three or four months -- the
average time it takes for plants to mature.

Fisher said B.C. marijuana has three grades -- Single A, Double A and
Triple A -- with the latter used for the export market.

He said police have seized B.C. bud from as far away as San Antonio, Texas
- -- where marijuana labelled as Northern Lights was being touted as
B.C.-grown marijuana.

Nadeau said while police in B.C. bust about 1,500 growing operations a
year, they have had less success in identifying the bigger players in the
pot trade.

"Police are running around kicking in doors, seizing plants and arresting
the people at the scene, who may not be the people running the show," he
said. "We want to change the focus ... [to] the big picture and the people
who are controlling the industry."

But Friesen, who oversees a seven-member dedicated marijuana "Green Team"
in Surrey, said it is difficult to strike a balance between longer-term
investigations that may catch bigger players and responding to residents'
demands to shut the grow-op in their neighbourhood.

"We're trying to take off the individuals who are responsible for many
grows, but at the same time we have an obligation to our community to root
out the more everyday complaint," he said.
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