Monday, September 16, 2013


Pot plantations: ‘There’s no stopping it’

MONTREAL — “Don’t wander off the trail, there could be bear traps. It’s rare but sometimes pot plantations are booby trapped.”

Sûreté du Québec officers load marijuana plants into a truck near an illegal plantation in a forest north of Shawinigan on Wednesday. Every fall, the force carries out a campaign to destroy grow ops found around the province.

Agent Hugo Fournier repeats the warning several times while leading Gazette journalists through a muddy path that cuts into the forest. Bear traps are only one of the ways marijuana growers guard their crops, Fournier says, and if a man were to step on one it would probably break his leg clean in half.

It’s a hot afternoon and the humidity carries that skunky smell hundreds of meters from a grow operation hidden somewhere in the distance.

On Wednesday, six Sûreté du Québec officers descended on the plantation and began the tedious work of destroying hundreds of plants. The site wasn’t easy to find, it’s tucked on the back side of an abandoned ski hill by a country road near Shawinigan.

Even after riding all-terrain vehicles deep into the woods, it takes a little hike to stumble onto the clearing where the cannabis grew.

But now the officers are on their hands and knees, cutting plants the size of small Christmas trees with garden shears. They use twine to bind the pot into bales, stopping occasionally to wipe sweat from their brows.

By day’s end, they’ll have seized 500 plants and 13 garbage bags full of dry marijuana buds from a nearby hunting shack — a haul that could fetch upward of $500,000 at wholesale prices. It’s not an abnormal find for the SQ’s marijuana task force. From the beginning of the harvest in late August until it ends in mid-November, the task force is in the field every day. The SQ’s Opération Cisaille has officers in all of its administrative regions and seizes about 790,000 plants every year.

But what police confiscate is only the tip of the iceberg. Marijuana is a business juggernaut in Canada, accounting for an estimated $20 billion in untaxed revenue each year — according to Simon Fraser University economist Stephen Easton. Along with British Columbia and Ontario, the RCMP considers Quebec to be Canada’s largest producer of weed.

Quebec is head and shoulders above every other province when it comes to marijuana consumption, according to the United Nations 2007 World Report on Narcotic Drugs. The study shows young Quebecers smoke nearly twice as much weed as teenagers in any other Canadian jurisdiction.

The billion-dollar industry that gets marijuana from the fields into the hands of consumers is held together by thousands of workers and professional criminals across the country. The illicit fields need cultivators and botanists to till them, someone to financially back the operation and a network of distributors to package and sell the pot in smaller quantities.

For almost 10 years, Stéphane was involved in the marijuana trade, including a brief stint working on an outdoor grow op for the Hells Angels.

Stéphane says he came to be employed by the biker gang in the 1990s after they caught him stealing from one of their fields near Oka.

“I heard there was this field near a farm close to my home so I sneaked into the field one night and helped myself,” he said. “I didn’t take that much, and I didn’t think anyone saw me, but I was wrong.“A few days later, I came back from work and they were waiting for me inside my home. One of the guys had my brother pinned against the wall with a knife pressed against his throat. We came to an agreement: I would work for them in the fields for a little while.”

A Canadian Forces Griffon helicopter hoists a bundle of marijuana from an illegal plantation in a forest north of Shawinigan on Wednesday while assisting the Sûreté du Québec.

The threat of violence never came up again, but it lingered in Stéphane’s mind. “The bikers didn’t have to say anything,” he said. “They knew I was terrified, they’d made their point.”

Throughout the following growing season, Stéphane was enlisted to trim buds, plant cannabis and check on the fields. He won’t say where the plantation was, but claims it was “up north” and yielded thousands of pounds of marijuana each season.

It wasn’t easy work. Stéphane and another young man dragged heavy equipment “deep into the bush” where the two got to work clearing trees with a chainsaw. Once the trees were cut, they placed cannabis seedlings throughout the site and spent days digging an irrigation system in the July sun — pestered by black flies and mosquitos.

By the end of summer when the plants matured, Stéphane would help cut the branches and load them into a van. It brought the marijuana to a warehouse near Laval, where it would be cut, weighed, divided into quarter-pound bags and sold to dealers in the area.

“No one stayed on site permanently,” Stephane said. “At some places, there are so many plants and you’re so deep in the woods that it’s safer to have a guy there all the time. So you might have a plantation where a guy just lives in a tent with a shotgun, but mostly we just came and went to avoid being caught.”

By the end of growing season, Stéphane would accumulate about $25,000 in cash and could sell as much weed as he wanted after buying the product for about $400 a pound.

“I could take the pound and just turn it around for $800 to $1,000 easily,” he said. “You always had cash in hand and the best part is that it wasn’t full time. You could do odd jobs on the side and do the weed thing when you needed to.”

After saving enough money to make a down payment on a bungalow, he gave up the drug trade and became a welder.

“I’m lucky I was never arrested, but I can’t say it isn’t tempting to go back,” he said. “I have a kid now and it’s just not worth the risk.”

Fewer growers are opting for an outdoor plantation, in part because of the successes of the SQ’s Cisaille program, but also because of challenges within the industry itself.

To be clear, there are still benefits for criminals who chose to grow outdoors.

For one thing, it’s harder to get caught given that the site of their operation is not permanently manned. The plants can also grow to be four times the size of domestic hydroponic pot.

But whereas hydroponic ops can grow year-round — affording the botanists several chances to perfect their strain — you only get one yield in the fields. And while the outdoor volume is impressive, it’s also less potent and much cheaper than hydroponic pot — a pound of field weed sells for about $1,200 to $1,300, while basement grow ops can sell their product for $2,000 a pound and more.

Pot seizures
Back at the Shawinigan plantation that’s just been taken down by the SQ, officers call in a Canadian Forces Griffon helicopter to scoop up the bundles of cannabis from atop the mountain. The helicopter lowers a net from several hundred feet above and the cops fill it with plants before the chopper takes it away to be destroyed by the SQ.

“It wasn’t the biggest plantation we’ve ever seen, but this was high quality stuff,” said Fournier, pointing to a bud the size of his fist. “These guys were organized, they knew what they were doing.”

On the part of the police, there’s a kind of begrudging, almost sportsmanlike respect for the criminals’ work ethic. They’re careful to explain the great lengths the growers went to in order to protect their investment. Officers point to the location of the pot field: how someone took the time to make sure the plants were hidden in the forest, but also cut down the thickest trees to allow sunlight to pierce through. They show the green tarps used to camouflage the propane heaters and gas-powered generators used to dry out the cannabis.

The cops seize all of the equipment they can fit in one of the ATV’s trailers. They leave behind the pipes, hoses and water tanks that fed the 500 plants after destroying the gear so it can’t be used again. Just before they leave, the Cisaille team posts signs throughout the plantation indicating it was the SQ that took the crops and not a rival organization.

“We didn’t find anyone on site, there aren’t any arrests yet so the only way we can let the growers know it was us is by leaving the signs,” Fournier said. “And we don’t want the grower thinking it was some other grower and starting some beef between them.”

The Mauricie region’s Cisaille crew is known for its hyper vigilance on the field, chasing down countless leads provided by local farmers, land owners and hikers who notice an odd smell or suspicious activity near their property. They also rent helicopters and fly over the Mauricie’s vast forests scanning the ground below with infra-red cameras that detect the cannabis plant’s heat signature.

At their peak, in 2010, the team seized nearly 300,000 plants, but that number has been cut in half over the past two years, a sign that dealers are slowly abandoning the outdoor plantations.

Even with all of the policing in the world, marijuana is one of the most readily available narcotics in the province. Stéphane says while increased policing has taken a lot of the violence out of the drug trade, it hasn’t really affected the volume and profitability of weed on the market.

“In fact, the one problem we would run into is that there’s so much pot out there, it almost exceeds demand and drives prices down,” Stéphane said. “There’s no stopping it.”
A Sûreté du Québec officer bundles marijuana plants at an illegal plantation in a forest north of Shawinigan on Wednesday.
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