Canadian $32M Bust

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Twenty-one people, including 14 Londoners, face charges following a 16-month investigation into a cannabis trafficking network in southern Ontario that led to the seizure of more than $32 million of drugs, the OPP announced Tuesday.

First, it was the illegal brick-and-mortar pot shops.

Now, three years after Canada legalized recreational cannabis, police have set their sights on illegal pot delivery services in the latest effort to snuff out the stubborn black market.

London police and the OPP’s organized crime unit announced the results Tuesday from a 16-month investigation into an alleged cannabis trafficking network that led to the seizure of $32 million worth of drugs and 21 people facing charges.

Police launched Project Gainsborough in June 2020 after investigators heard about a large-scale network distributing marijuana products in southern Ontario and trafficking cocaine in the London region, police said at virtual news conference.

Investigators allege a sophisticated criminal organization was operating a pot delivery service in four cities — London, Kitchener, Hamilton and Toronto — and involved in exporting cannabis products globally, police said.

“Since legalization, there’s been a big prevalence of illegal online websites in Ontario and Canada,” OPP Det.-Insp. Jim Walker said, declining to provide the name of the website in this investigation.

Created after recreational pot was legalized in October 2018, the OPP’s Joint Forces Cannabis Enforcement Team originally targeted illegal dispensaries. After almost all of those storefronts had been shuttered, except for those operating on Indigenous territories, the OPP unit turned its attention to the illegal growers who supply the black market.

Finally, illegal weed delivery services, estimated to be in the hundreds in Ontario, have attracted police attention and resources.

“This won’t be the last one we’ll do,” Walker said of the latest investigation into distribution networks.

The black market once supplied the bulk of cannabis bought in Ontario even after legalization, but that share has been significantly reduced by the more than 1,000 marijuana retail stores now open in cities and towns across the province.

The illicit market accounted for 44 per cent of the pot sold in Ontario, according to a report released earlier this year by the Ontario Cannabis Store, the government-run marijuana wholesaler and online delivery service.

As part of Project Gainsborough, police dismantled two secret cannabis extraction labs in Middlesex County and Brampton and also searched 15 locations in London, St. Thomas, Middlesex, Norfolk County, Toronto and Hamilton.

Investigators seized 495 kilograms of cannabis resin and oil, 7,166 kilograms of dried marijuana, 10,000 packages of cannabis-infused edibles, 2,773 kilograms of marijuana shake, 185 kilograms of cannabis shatter, 15,343 pot plants, grow-op equipment, 65 kilograms of magic mushrooms, 124 grams of cocaine, prescription pills, six guns, ammunition, more than $53,000 cash and six vehicles.

Drug trafficking is often linked to guns and other weapons that pose a danger to the public, London police Det.-Supt. Paul Waight said.

“Like many other cities, London has been directly impacted by the illegal drug trade and the dangers that are associated to it,” he said.

“The level of sophistication of the criminal networks controlling the distribution of drugs throughout the province requires the level of co-operation and teamwork displayed by the various police services that participated in this investigation.”

Twenty-one people face a combined 118 charges related to drugs, guns and organized crime. The accused range in age from 21 to 73 and include 14 people from London, two from St. Thomas, three from Tillsonburg and one each from Stoney Creek and Hamilton.

Walker wouldn’t say whether any of the accused are connected to outlaw motorcycle clubs or other organized crime groups.

“Not all organized crime has a moniker or a patch attached to it,” he said.