August 27, 2000
Home-Grown Drug Business Booms in Vancouver By JAMES BROOKE VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- As Canada's health department looks this fall for a reliable supplier of almost one million marijuana cigarettes for clinical trials, some Canadians say they need to look no farther than "British Colombia," where relaxed attitudes about smoking marijuana have helped turn the province into a major North American producer for some of the drug's strongest strains. While Mexicans can grow bales of the stuff on plantations, cold weather Canadians have genetically tweaked their indoor plants to reach potencies of 10 times the levels of the Woodstock-era grass, putting it on a par with prized Jamaican weed.
Now marijuana is estimated to be a $1 billion-a-year export here, right behind lumber and tourism as the leading business in British Columbia. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police estimate that there are about 9,000 "grow operations" in the Vancouver area. Across the bay from here, in the city of Nanaimo, the Mounties estimate that there are 1,000 residential grow operations, about one every two blocks.
"In my neighborhood, it's one house in 10," said Chris, a 40-year-old grower. "I walk around late at night, after work, and I can smell it, from the fans."
Increasingly, marijuana turns up in the oddest places. In May, a newspaper here reported that a man had been caught growing plants in a garage of a house he rented from the attorney general of the province.
On Aug. 12, two Canadian men wearing military uniforms were arrested in Blaine, Wash., after crossing the border in two Canadian military trucks. (The United States Customs Service says one truck was loaded with five duffel bags, containing a total of 240 pounds of marijuana.)
The concentration of marijuana growing stems from many factors. Judges, mirroring local public opinion, tend to give lenient punishments. An arrest for growing 500 plants, the average size of a bust here, often yields an $800 fine -- compared with a short prison sentence in California or a life sentence in Texas.
"I paid my partner's fine, $500, with money from the business -- it's a business," said Buck, an engaging 30-year-old in a polo shirt. He said he talked his way out of any charges when a policeman his age discovered his grow operation this year.
A study by the local newspaper, The Vancouver Sun, found that of 112 people convicted here of growing marijuana in the late 1990's, one quarter served no jail time and paid no fines, and that 58 percent paid fines of less than $1,800. Fewer than one in seven served any jail time.
With prices for "B.C. Bud" double on the American side of the border, marijuana is indeed lucrative in a province with some of North America's highest tax rates, stagnant economic growth, and high unemployment among young people.
Vancouver also offers the technical support a serious grower needs. With cultivators here approaching their indoor marijuana farming with the solemnity of Japanese bonsai gardeners, the number of stores specializing in hydroponic gardening equipment mushroomed in Vancouver during the 1990's, from 3 to 30. Growing plants without soil, in a mix of rock pellets and nutrient-rich water, requires an array of electric gadgets -- from 1,000-watt lamps to cooling systems to special systems that neutralize telltale odors before ventilation.
At one store, Jon's Plant Factory, the offerings do not seem geared to growing hydroponic tomatoes. In the electronic section, there is a $1,400 sophisticated pager, sort of an electronic plant sitter that can alert the long-distance gardener of system failures -- water pumps, air fans, fertilizer drips -- or even if an intruder has opened a window or a door.
Referring to complex growing systems, Chris, an experienced electrician and plumber, said during a store tour, "Some people will sell their feeding schedules for $6,000."
Cheaper technical support comes from Marc Emery, Canada's leading cannabis capitalist. Mr. Emery offers 350 varieties of marijuana seeds through his Web site and publishes Cannabis Culture, a magazine of gardening tips. This year, he started two Internet media productions, Pot Radio and Pot-TV Internetwork, a 24-hour online broadcast of marijuana news.
For marijuana broadcasters like Mr. Emery, the news from Canada this summer has been encouraging.
In separate rulings in late July, Ontario Court of Appeal judges ruled against employee drug testing and invalidated Canada's law against marijuana possession. In the latter case, Judge Marc Rosenberg suspended his ruling for a year to give Parliament time to rewrite the law. His ruling, however, immediately granted Terry Parker, a 44-year-old Toronto man, the right to smoke marijuana to control his epilepsy.
With Parliament scheduled to return in September, Canada's two national newspapers, The Globe and Mail and The National Post, have editorialized in favor of decriminalizing marijuana for medical uses. Anne McLellan, Canada's justice minister and a member of Parliament for the governing Liberal Party, has said such decriminalization "is a legitimate question."
On that subject, Canadians, as usual, are cautiously looking at the United States.
"Outright legalization would cause serious trouble with the United States," The Globe and Mail editorialized after the Ontario decision. Calling for decriminalization, a path favored by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, the newspaper concluded, "Therefore, Canada should follow its historical nature and take a middle path."
In a survey here in May for The Vancouver Sun, 56 percent of the people agreed that provincial courts should "ignore the Americans and hand out sentences we think are appropriate." A virtually identical percentage said that possession of marijuana should not be a criminal offense. With 61 seriously ill people authorized by Health Canada to smoke marijuana for medicinal purposes, the government plans to start clinical trials of marijuana next year.
When smugglers are cornered at the border, the smart ones sprint north. Even so, the border is lightly patrolled and few people are caught, compared with the intensely watched United States border with Mexico. In the federal fiscal year ending last September, United States Customs Service agents seized 50 times as much marijuana coming in from Mexico, 988,310 pounds, as they seized coming in from Canada, 19,753 pounds.
Some Americans hope that if Canada decriminalizes marijuana possession it would show the United States a different path, similar to Canada's strict gun control laws and its system of universal, government-administered health care.
This year, the Vancouver police have raided growing operations at twice the rate of last year. But they are careful to publicize their raids as efforts to break up vicious Asian gangs, to protect children from fires in houses with faulty wiring, or to break up smuggling rings where hockey bags stuffed with marijuana are traded for guns and hard drugs from the United States.
"We have houses burning down, we have explosions, we have organized crime in our neighborhoods," Sgt. Chuck Doucette, the Mountie spokesman here, said in an interview. Noting that anonymous tips about grow houses have flooded his office this year, he added, "We cannot keep up with the calls."
Still decriminalization for casual use seems to be a reality here in Vancouver.
Last May, hundreds of people gathered for a marijuana "smoke-in" on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery, five blocks from the premier's office. The police ignored the event. In contrast, on the same day the police arrested 312 people for lighting up at a legalization rally in lower Manhattan.