VANCOUVER -- The grass really is greener in British Columbia, to the tune of $7-billion a year, according to a landmark study by the Fraser Institute.

In fact, so much, so-called "B.C. bud" is harvested illegally in the province, with police efforts to stem the growth almost totally futile, study author Steve Easton says that the time has come to legalize, regulate and allow governments to tax marijuana.

"Police resources should be deployed elsewhere," the Simon Fraser University economics professor contended yesterday.

"Marijuana is too easily produced . . . and the return on investment sufficiently great that for each grow-up demolished, another takes its place. There is a perpetual, lasting supply of people willing to do it [grow marijuana]."

If Prof. Easton's $7-billion estimate of the annual worth of cannabis cigarettes produced in B.C. is correct, marijuana has become one of the most valuable commodities in the province.

It would trail only forestry, which contributes about $8.9-billion annually to the provincial economy. The latest figures for tourism indicate a $5-billion economic contribution, while construction accounts for $5.3-billion.

The report by Prof. Easton estimates there are as many as 17,500 marijuana grow-ops in the province.

Yet few of those busted by police face serious punishment in British Columbia courts.

Prof. Easton found that only 13 per cent of possession cases result in actual charges, compared with 60 per cent in the rest of the country.

Further, looking at statistics from Vancouver, 55 per cent of those charged with running a grow-op receive no jail time, while 13 per cent were given sentences of one to 31 days.

"While police resources are spent to destroy nearly 3,000 marijuana growing operations a year, the consequences are relatively small for those convicted," Prof. Easton says in his comprehensive report.

Despite this, police task forces continue to kick in doors and dismantle individual operations. One jaded police force recently headlined its continuing efforts in a press release with: "Another day, another grow operation."

Grow-ops have been found in the most exclusive neighbourhoods in posh West Vancouver, on the same premises as daycares and even on a rented property belonging to former premier and provincial attorney-general Ujjal Dosanjh.

The bourgeoning industry is so widespread that the B.C. Real Estate Association now requires sellers to indicate whether their property has previously been used as a marijuana grow operation.

Prof. Easton said the scale of the marijuana industry is not surprising, despite its illegality. "There's a good rate of return. It's a profitable business."

In his report, he sketched the return for a "modest," 100-plant grow-op.

That should produce 13 kilograms of marijuana sold in pound blocks "out the back door" at $2,600 a pound, amounting to a harvest of close to $20,000, he said.

"With four harvests per year, gross revenue is nearly $80,000."

He set production costs at about $25,000, yielding a return on investment of around 55 per cent.

Canada would be much better served if marijuana were legalized and taxed, he said, noting that 7.5 per cent of Canadians currently smoke marijuana.

Based on the current price of marijuana cigarettes, he calculated a resulting annual tax benefit of more than $2-billion.

"As it stands now, growers and distributors pay some of the costs and reap all of the benefits of the multibillion-dollar marijuana industry, while the non-marijuana-smoking taxpayer sees only costs," Prof. Easton says in the report.

He likened the current situation to the era of alcohol prohibition in the early 20th century that spawned a huge increase in organized crime with little benefit to the public. "I don't think it's a good thing to do to smoke marijuana. I'm an economist. But we should treat marijuana like tobacco and alcohol."

Published: Wednesday, June 9, 2004
Copyright: 2004 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc