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The War on BC's Small Pot Farmer

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

Molly Lynch 16 Dec

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.

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Asset seizures and other punishment of small growers contrast with the fact that two-thirds of Canadians would legalize pot. Marijuana cultivator photo: Shutterstock.

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 warrant.

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.

Pot country

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.

Most Canadians support legalization

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 shouting.

"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.

Targeting the small farmer

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 the ground in the vast defunct mining chambers. Prairie Plant Systems Inc., a multinational biotechnology pharmaceutical corporation was awarded the first two licenses under the Conservative government's new 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 have been changed to protect identities.  [Tyee]

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