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'Pot Pirates' Are Injecting A Terrifying Twist To The Marijuana Industry In Canada

Smokin Moose

Fallen Cannabis Warrior
HALIBURTON, Ont. -As the trees change from green to red and orange along Highway 400, city dwellers make fewer weekend treks hours north of Toronto, through winding country roads, into the heart of cottage country.

The seasonal holidaymakers are replaced instead by the criminals involved in outdoor marijuana growops who each year descend upon the region's remote swampland, fields and forests to harvest their crop, but who this year are behind levels of violence so unprecedented that it has residents and cottagers thoroughly frightened.

"It's a secluded place. If you wanted to do anything illegal, this is the place to do it," said Colin Turner of Harcourt Park, a private 8,000-acre cottage community near Haliburton. Late last month, police made residents stay indoors during a cottage drug bust that turned up two improperly stored long guns and a handgun. "You never think it's going to be right on your back doorstep," Mr. Turner said.

Biker gangs, Asian gangs and other criminals have operated a lucrative drug industry in cottage country for years, but police say a violent new trend is emerging: criminals stealing from other criminals' grow-ops.

"What we are dealing with is pot pirates -- individuals who scour the area and identify grows and take plants at any cost, with no regard for public safety," said Detective-Sergeannt Dean Steinke of the Kawartha Lakes Combined Forces Drug Enforcement Unit.

On Oct. 5, two contractors working for the Ministry of Natural Resources driving ATVs on a trail near Minden came upon three armed and masked men dragging bags of harvested marijuana out of the bush. The contractors were taken hostage and tied up with their own belts - -- one was pistol-whipped -- while the assailants took their identification and stole their ATVs. That same afternoon, four others using the trail were similarly stopped, tied up, and forced to lie face down on the ground.

"It was a hostage scenario. These guys kept them in their custody for over three hours," Det. Sgt. Steinke said. "These guys are brutal and dangerous. They have no problem dealing with civilians, stealing their ATVs, tying them up and beating them."

When Haliburton police arrived at the scene, they found 1,800 pounds of marijuana left behind in bags and another grow-op in a nearby swamp, worth a total of $3.5-million.

While those operating grow-ops have been known to steal ATVs from private properties, these recent incidents are the first time that officers have encountered such a degree of violence toward innocent people.

Residents in the area, which lies north of Lake Simcoe and south of Algonquin Park and is a picturesque mix of small residential clusters dotted around countryside and myriad lakes, have been caught by surprise.

"This is basically a tourist destination where it's been safe for years," said Pauline Johnson, a resident of Carnarvon, a small town near Minden, and an avid ATV user. "We all know these things [grow-ops] are up here. But certainly we don't expect the violence associated with it."

These pot pirates are only the newest part of a growing problem of violence among growers intent on protecting their precious cottage-country crops. Det. Sgt. Steinke's unit seized 2,500 plants in 2002, but in 2004 they eradicated 30,000. So far this year, they have carried out 105 search warrants on properties known to grow or process marijuana and other drugs.

This fall, police have found marijuana in cornfields and on Crown land, and have raided private cottages processing drugs. Det. Sgt. Steinke said a fellow officer even found rogue pot plants that had been planted on his own property.

"There's so many people scared up here right now," said a man who lives and operates a business in nearby Eagle Lake, and who identified himself only as John for fear of retribution from biker gangs that have threatened him.

"These guys put fear in me. If they can't get you, they'll get your family," he said.

Det. Sgt. Steinke said the problem is not simply biker gangs but that marijuana thieves are becoming more daring overall, braving booby traps and guarded crops.

Last fall, five police from the Kawartha Lakes drug unit arrived at an outdoor grow-op targeted as part of a crackdown and found a large group of men on the scene stealing plants.

"Twenty-one people went into the bush from every ethnic group, working together to steal someone else's grow," said Det. Sgt. Steinke. "They were armed and wore bulletproof vests." Police initially intercepted a dozen of the thieves and caught the rest of them throughout the evening.

Det. Sgt. Steinke said the risk of getting caught or even killed is worth the reward for those growing and stealing marijuana. "Canada is responsible for a $7-to $10-billion industry with 75% to 85% of marijuana going to the U.S.," he said.

In late September, police ended a four-month investigation dubbed Project Lynx by busting a $200-million operation based out of Port Perry that processed marijuana and other drugs from Port Perry, Oshawa, Whitby, Toronto, Haliburton, Bracebridge and the City of Kawartha Lakes.

"Cottage country is prime; there's more water and swampland than there are roads," said Det. Sgt. Steinke.

He said he does not have enough staff to deal with the problem, and laments that the court sentences imposed on offenders are not strong enough to deter the crimes.

For residents like John, the violence has them contemplating a move out of this bucolic area.

"You know there's a problem when you feel unsafe on your own property," he said.

Source: National Post (Canada)
Copyright: 2007 Southam Inc.
Contact: letters@nationalpost.com
Website: canada.com
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