London police say there are so many home-grow operations in the city, they could raid a new one every day -- if they had the time.
GOING TO POT: High times
It's Sunday morning at a popular downtown cafe, and the joint is packed.
Four teens, so committed to getting high, smoke eight power-packed joints in mere minutes, double-fisting spliffs in between bites of chicken sandwiches at Vancouver's most comfortable spot to get high without hassle.
Behind them, four battle-scarred loggers dump seven grams, or "a quarter", of crystal-covered B.C. bud on a foosball table. Each man takes his turn dipping meaty, calloused hands into the pile of weed to start rolling several giant joints.
At this cafe, there's no reason to hide your stash. The police just shrug, resigned to let pot smokers have their way. That's good, because there's too much smoke from the 50-odd customers to work undercover.
"We love the atmosphere here. It's just like Amsterdam, but in a way it kind of makes me sad," said Jamie Lalli, 21, a vacationer from Seattle attracted by the local hands-off approach to pot.
"Canada has all this freedom. It seems so progressive. And here we are coming from the United States, which was supposedly built on freedom and progression."
It's a sign of Canada's high times.
What would have landed these people in cuffs not long ago is now common, a reflection of how Canada's view of marijuana has dramatically changed in 20 years -- thanks to a wave of pot popularity that began in B.C. more than 10 years ago.
In Ontario, marijuana use -- and the underground industry that supplies it -- is now so widespread, police use terms such as "epidemic" and "disaster" to describe its proportions.
And it's not just big-city Toronto that's seen the growth in pot use and the illegal marijuana-growing operations, often stashed in ordinary homes.
Across Southwestern Ontario, police have seized more than $10 million in drugs from grow operations this year, trying to uproot a trend that's grown like weeds.
In London, police say they could raid a different home used only to grow marijuana every day if only they had the time.
"There's so many out there. I'm sure we don't even scratch the surface," said one undercover officer in the drug unit.
And just like the trend to larger farms in agriculture, police are noticing ever-larger grow operations -- "an influx of the industrial-size grows," as one Southwestern Ontario OPP officer puts it -- where homes may be packed with 6,000 plants.
The numbers are startling:
- In Ontario police searched 1,400 grow operations last year, a sevenfold spike in three years.
- In a 10-county swath of the Southwest near London, police have seized more than $6 million in drugs so far this year and as many as 6,000 marijuana plants in one bust. London police raids have netted another $5.5 million in pot.
- It can cost $30,000 to start up a grow operation, but the payback is huge: One plant represents up to $1,000 in drug sales and an average grow operation with 250 plants can yield an annual crop worth $1 million.
The allure of quick profits has made pot a growth industry.
"It was like the growers were here overnight," said York Region Det. Mike Klimm, who said there are now about 1,500 grow operations in York Region, near Toronto. "All of a sudden they were everywhere."
But police trying to fight back say they're swamped, lacking adequate resources to track and catch increasingly intelligent and organized growers, smugglers and dealers as organized crime syndicates have spread from B.C. into Ontario.
Police say billions of dollars' worth of Canadian pot is smuggled into the U.S. each year, huge amounts of electricity is stolen to fuel grow operations -- and yet, those arrested consistently get conditional sentences.
Jail time, they say is rare.
"The penalties and the consequences from the courts are absolutely insignificant," said Toronto police Chief Julian Fantino, formerly a London police chief.
The most comprehensive study on arrests and convictions, completed last year in B.C., looked at 8,010 cases involving arrests for alleged pot cultivation. Only 25 per cent of those associated with a case were convicted and only 18 per cent of those convicted got jail time, an average of 4.5 months.
But Fantino understands what polls have been tracking for more than 10 years.
As many as two million Canadians smoke marijuana recreationally, the Canadian Medical Association estimates.
But in the drug war for the hearts and minds of Canadians, opinion has turned toward legalizing the leaf -- and the government is preparing to respond.
Last fall, a Senate committee recommended legalizing marijuana after a comprehensive study dispelled many long-standing marijuana myths. Among the conclusions:
- Marijuana is "not a gateway" to harder drugs.
- Fewer than 10 per cent of users become addicted.
- Policing and prosecuting dope smokers costs $300 million to $500 million a year, mostly to deal with possession charges.
Under the report's guidelines, marijuana use would be restricted to adults and criminal law would still apply to those producing and selling the drug.
"It is time to recognize what is patently obvious; our policies have been ineffective because they are poor policies," the Senate committee concluded.
Now, Ottawa is poised for new legislation expected in June, which would decriminalize simple marijuana possession in a revamped drug strategy.
But doctors fighting to keep marijuana banned say the information coming from pro-liberalization lobby groups such as the Marijuana Party is dangerous.
"People don't perceive marijuana as harmful anymore and I think that's happened largely because of a powerful propaganda machine which has led to a general ignorance," said Dr. Raju Hajela, a past president of the Canadian Society of Addiction Medicine.
"There is an allure that it is natural. People try it and they think there is nothing wrong with it. Even for people trying it for the first time, there are devastating consequences."