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Gardening suppliers face increased scrutiny as police try to curb urban pot production
The 1,000 watts needed to power the Sunmaster metal-halide grow-light kit make it blindingly bright. So bright that when one focuses on Dominic Cramer after staring at the $450 device, little multihued spots dance in front of the shop owner as he explains how his other products work, including the Can-Fan charcoal filters that suck suspicious aromas out of a room.
But the soft whir of ventilation fans in his second-floor Yonge Street shop don't muffle the fulminations of the founder of the Toronto Hemp Company. The 31-year-old entrepreneur can go on at length about his wares, but frequently pauses to rant against "ignorant politicians," "police propaganda," "witch hunts," "Big Brother" and the general "lunacy" of this country's marijuana laws.
If he sounds alarmed, he has a reason. Two officers recently parked their cruiser outside Mr. Cramer's shop and spent a half hour checking out his perfectly legal goods.
Outraged at what they call a "scourge" of indoor marijuana grow operations in the Toronto area, police are looking more closely at the relationship between grow ops and the rising number of places that sell indoor growing equipment.
While indoor-gardening enthusiasts certainly exist, police don't think they're the ones driving demand.
"You know where they [marijuana growers] are getting the stuff from -- it's all hydroponic stores," says Don Cardwell, a detective with York Region's drug squad, which he says is contemplating greater scrutiny of such shops. "It's something we have to consider: Cut the supplier off," he says.
The fear of drawing too much attention may explain why equipment vendors were reluctant to be interviewed about their businesses, including Rexdale-based Homegrown Hydroponics, which has 25 locations and advertises on radio station Q107's Psychedelic Sundays show. And it's not only the little guys who fear being associated with illicit grow operations. Home Depot spokesman Nick Cowling says the chain has systems in place to monitor large purchases of items -- such as piping or lighting -- that may contribute to grow operations. "We're always going to help out the local authorities," he says.
Mr. Cramer, however, is more outspoken. While he sells all the equipment needed to grow marijuana indoors -- fans to circulate carbon dioxide and cool the high-wattage lights that boost yield, timers that control lights to simulate night and day, charcoal filters to clean up the smell -- he says his clientele are legitimate medicinal marijuana users or people who grow only a few plants in closets or small rooms. But he insists out-in-the-open vendors like him aren't supplying the GTA grow-op boom, which has seen busts in Toronto alone jump from 33 in 2001 to more than 250 last year.
"It's not a big cash-generating industry for little guys like us," he says, blaming the big-time profit-seeking syndicates of marijuana growers.
Pot activists such as Mr. Cramer differentiate themselves and their clients from the large-scale growers that police are now routinely taking down. They say that these gangs tend to have their own networks, set up dummy corporations to buy gear wholesale, or even send teams of people to purchase stuff from big-box hardware stores.
Police, however, say that crime gangs often have a hydroponic store at the centre of their operations. "We've sent undercover officers in," Det. Cardwell says. "But they have a selective clientele whom they know and trust, right? They have connections to get you the baby marijuana plants as well, usually off-location, but they won't give that information unless they really trust you."
Police also have to weigh whether intensive investigations pay off in court. Take Project Potluck. Three years ago, police in Peel Region circulated a news release announcing they, the RCMP, and even the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency teamed up for what was then described as a major bust. After a 10-month sting, police said they bought much more than equipment from four Mississauga stores: Marijuana plants and expertise in growing them were also for sale. Police arrested nearly 20 people on drug charges and seized $1.7-million worth of property.
But a funny thing happened on the way to court. In what was supposed to have been an open-and-shut case, most of the people charged received house-arrest terms less lengthy than the time it took police to investigate. One husband-and-wife team was forced to hand over $200,000 in money, two houses and four cars that were found to be the proceeds of crime, but only the wife was sentenced to jail time. And Mississauga's All Seasons Hydroponics, the focal point of Potluck, remains in business today.
Last September in Scarborough, Toronto Police made an even larger bust. More than 40 suspects were arrested as police focused on two indoor-gardening stores -- Caesar's Garden Centre and Jade Garden Trading. The case is still before the courts, but it's alleged people affiliated with the stores were selling equipment, expertise and baby marijuana plants -- and also taking back mature plants and selling them.
While Mr. Cramer says he sticks to selling legal goods, he wonders how deep the scrutiny might extend. A B.C.-based friend of his was recently arrested and Mr. Cramer believes the man was targeted after being spotted buying soil at Home Depot. As British Columbia tends to lead Canada on all marijuana-cultivation trends, Mr. Cramer fears that officials in Ontario may also pick up strange West Coast ideas -- such as "the insanity" of setting up registries for growing-equipment shops, as some politicians there are now proposing.