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Growing Pains: Marijuana Cultivation In Huron County

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"I'll run it low for the next couple of days," says John - who asked his real name not be used - as he inspects the progress of his hydroponic plants. "See those leaves and how they're curling up at the edges? It could be because the fan is drying them out or because they are getting too much fertilizer."

Here, tucked in an upstairs corner of a Huron County home, high-pressure sodium ( HPS ) lightly casts a pinkish glow over 15 neatly arranged marijuana plants, each poking out one-and-a-half to two feet above a plastic insulating sheet.

Beneath the plastic, nutrient-rich water runs through a length of rubber tubing into a tray containing foam bricks which house the roots, back into a collector reservoir below. Each time the water cycles through, the plants extract more fertilizer from the water until it has completely run through. It's quite an efficient set-up.

"This is 10 less plants than I would normally do," explains John as he swishes a pH reader through the collector reservoir with low results. "See how it's 700-800 ppm ( parts per million ) right now? Normally it should be 1,000 to 1,100."

With that, the indoor gardener adds a few drops of phosphoric acid to the water to keep it at just the perfect balance for his plants.

Using only a 400-watt HPS bulb, John says he is able to grow fewer plants with a higher yield, as they have more room to grow and can be closer to the light source with little withering

"They're looking good," he says of his plants. "I should be able to get three quarters of a pound at least."

At a rate of two to three medium-sized joints a day, that much marijuana would last four or five months. John says he normally pulls off three to four batches in any given year.

The space itself occupies less than five feet squared, though the plants in question will generate enough buds to supply John with marijuana for the next few months and help make his monthly loan payments. Hardly what you'd expect from a neighbourhood "grow-op."

Then again, the scene in this Huron County home hardly seems like a stereotypical grow-operation.

To enter the house, you would never even know it was there. No sights, smells or sounds suggest there is a hydroponic operation just metres away.

Everything about this particular setup is surprisingly low-key, from the lone light over the plant tray to the old electric fan that recirculates the air. It's nothing like the huge operations seen on television or newspapers following huge busts such as the old Molson plant in Barrie in 2005.

However, even though John has a minimal set-up, he could be prosecuted just the same as those large scale operators. Since the Liberal government's proposed changes to marijuana laws died with the dissolution of the last parliament, the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act ( CDSA ) of 1997 remains the go-to document for marijuana cases.

As it stands with the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, he could potentially face seven years in prison if caught.

For the moment, John is not concerned - he keeps to himself and has no plans on joining an international cartel any time soon. He works a full-time job, supports a family and is a contributing member of his community.

Though he does sell small amounts to meet costs ( including his own cost of living ), this isn't the million-dollar enterprise read about in police reports. All told, even if three batches of his plants grow to fruition, John isn't even looking at $5,000 - before cost.

What he does sell, he says primarily ends up in the hands of factory workers, with an average age of 25-55 years old.

That keeps with Statistics Canada's figures as well, which say that 50 per cent of all marijuana users are more than 30 years of age.

Though as a grower he faces set charges stipulated in the CDSA, the plight of the smoker is in a state of change.

The constant legal debate regarding marijuana possession took an unexpected turn last month, when a Toronto judged deemed Canadian possession laws unconstitutional. The reason was they only stipulate policy regarding medicinal marijuana without actually making changes to the laws.

The argument was made then, that all Canadian possession laws were unconstitutional. The decision was upheld and was expected to be appealed.

Marijuana cultivation doesn't just start with a seed and end in a cruiser. There are an estimated six to eight cultivation cases currently before the courts in Huron County.

The amount of small possession cases in the courts have jumped between 20 and 50 per cent since Bill C-17 died, according to one CBC.ca report - a cost felt not only in taxpayer dollars, but court time.

These numbers do not necessarily reflect an average year for Huron County's marijuana cultivation charges - a crime that becomes increasingly less seasonal as indoor operations allow for a number of indoor crops to be harvested per year.

Goderich lawyer Mike Donnelly said the number of charges laid in Huron County have not skyrocketed and that there was no local spike in charges or enforcement since 2006.

"It hasn't changed anything in my perspective," he said. "Not locally, anyway."

All cultivation charges are considered an indictable offence with a maximum sentence of 14 years.

"It's reasonably common," said Donnelly of marijuana cultivation charges. "There have been a number of fairly large arrests before the courts.

Large scale, said Donnelly, is normally in the area of 350-400 plants.

"Turn that over three or four times a year and that's a lot of product," he said.

Cultivation offences do have a certain degree of flexibility when it comes to sentencing. The prosecution, defence and the judge all have their say in how hard the book is thrown at the grower.

"The penalty depends on the number of plants and whether it's a commercial operation," said Donnelly. "For large scale, it's almost always jail time."

Donnelly said there is no significant distinction between prosecuting outdoor or indoor growers, aside from the amounts stipulated in the CDSA.

Possession, he said, is often the result of a different criminal investigation where a search of a suspect turns up drugs and other paraphernalia.

"I've had cases where police lay charges for residue; bits of powder, traces of oil..." he said. "A couple of joints in the pocket is the typical possession."

In cases of possession, the prosecution can decide whether or not to pursue the matter as a summary conviction or as an indictable offence, depending on the amount.

"Anything under 30 grams is a straight summary conviction," said Donnelly. "There are greater penalties available if by indictment."

For John, the penalties seem to be worth the risks - he is on his way to pulling off his first batch of the year. However, should he be busted, his case would be fairly cut and dried, so to speak.

Outdoor, on the other hand, is much harder to prosecute. Donnelly said the reason why is because there just isn't enough manpower to police every creek, field and forest in the county.

Destruction of the discovered crops is still the number one way of dealing with outdoor grow operations. To that effect, The Ontario Provincial Police and Crime Stoppers have been hard at work, making sure the public is well aware of the signs of marijuana growing sites.

Late summer/early autumn is generally harvest time for the outdoor illegal marijuana crop, and Const. Joanna Van Mierlo, media relations officer for the Huron OPP, said the public plays a considerable role in helping to locate not only plants, but growers as well.

The best defence is a sharp eye, she said. However, the constable warns against people playing the hero if they come across suspicious planting activities.

"We always encourage people to get licence numbers of the vehicles," she said. "It's not unusual for ( growers ) to be armed to protect their crop - although that does not happen a whole lot here, it does happen."

Van Mierlo said while police are always on the lookout for marijuana cultivation, there is no indication that the number of plants or planters is on the rise.

"It seems to be... not cyclical, but it goes in fits and starts," said Van Mierlo. "We had a number of those types of seizures a few years ago."

The amount of police response depends on the size and severity of the suspected grow. When a cultivation site is reported, an initial investigation determines how much manpower is necessary.

"The public will alert us to locations for grows and then follow up would be done using a helicopter or officers on land," she said. "I would say that generally it's a high hit rate - if someone suspects a plant to be one, usually they are."

Whereas indoor growers like John have the convenience of being able to outfit their homes with all the essentials, outdoor growers need to go where the water is.

Van Mierlo said most outdoor marijuana is planted near some sort of water source, along fence lines or on the edges of fields. As for the magnitude of the grow-op, it ranges greatly.

"Some can be as large as organized crime related, some can be as small as the local pot smoker that wants to have enough to supply him or herself," Van Mierlo said.

Donnelly concurs.

"It could be two in the garden next to the peonies or it could be 10,000," he said.

Van Mierlo said though the country is an ideal place for outdoor planting, indoor operations are permeating more and more into the towns.

"There seems to be a trend where indoor grows are being set up right in the middle of an urban centre," she said. "They're not necessarily in a farmhouse in the middle of the bush."

She said there are some tell-tale signs used to spot possible grow-houses in towns:

the house might be quite neglected - appearing that no one is living there

they're probably not putting garbage out on garbage day

residents come and go at odd times.

steam in the windows in the wintertime

the windows are completely covered

However, Van Mierlo stressed that these are only signs and that police have much more red tape to get around than just appearing like it could be a grow op.

"The public needs to remember it's a lot more difficult for us to get into a residence than a farmer's field for a seizure," she said. "That's just the laws of Canada and the right to privacy. We have to have grounds.

"I've been in big ones and I've been in really small ones," she said. "It's all pretty dangerous and it's pretty amateur."

The danger lies in the methods growers use to obtain hydro. She said it is not uncommon for growers to dig out their hydro lines and bypass the metres on their houses so the power they use is virtually undetectable. This, she said, poses a significant risk to public safety.

"It's a huge danger to people going past they property," she said. "They're not electricians. There is stray voltage, live wires, exposed wires..."

That type of danger means the police have to be incredibly cautious even before stepping into the suspected house. Upon entry, she said the safety of the officers becomes even more of a priority.

"We would use biohazard equipment because of toxic equipment and chemicals," she said. "Often there are booby traps set."

With John's set-up, the most harmful chemical is the phosphoric acid, which he applies somewhat carefully, though not with gloves or a ventilator. He does, however, store it safely away from where people or animals could get at it.

The rest of it poses no real harm to a visitor or investigator - his hydro usage is low due to the type of light he is using and is not bypassed from the main metre. The only electrical work he has done for this operation is plugging it in.

As with outdoor operations, Van Mierlo said the best thing to do is call the police and let them handle the investigation, however, the timeliness of the calls can ultimately affect the outcome as well.

Considering his own crop is largely personal, John doesn't feel it should be outlawed.

"Why is marijuana so bad to grow?" he asks, rhetorically. "Why can I grow tomatoes using this same setup and everything?"

Regardless, tomatoes won't result in cultivation, possession and trafficking charges - marijuana will.

Source: Goderich Signal-Star
Copyright: 2007 Goderich Signal-Star
Contact: gssnews@bowesnet.com
Website: Goderich Signal-Star, Goderich, ON
 
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