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Home-Grown Drug Business Booms in Vancouver

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The following New York Times article was also printed in the Sunday SF Examiner
August 27, 2000

Home-Grown Drug Business Booms in Vancouver

By JAMES BROOKE
ANCOUVER, 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.
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Dale Gieringer (415) 563-5858 // canorml@igc.org
2215-R Market St. #278, San Francisco CA 94114