Last fall, the Abbotsford police drug squad was tipped to a suspected marijuana-growing operation in their city.
As they began their investigation, they soon learned that a man in his 50s who was on parole for a 2007 drug-smuggling conviction was living in the house.
They gathered evidence and intelligence about the operation. As the lead investigator prepared his documents to apply for a search warrant, he made a call to Health Canada.
He was surprised to learn that the house had a medical marijuana licence.
"He didn't make that contact with Health Canada initially because he identified quite quickly that the target had that early criminal conviction, so he assumed that there was no way the guy could have a licence," Const. Ian MacDonald said. "It would make sense, right?"
And that was the end of the criminal case.
"It is one that we ultimately had to say 'Okay, that's as far as that one goes,'" MacDonald said.
Police across B.C. are concerned that medical-marijuana licences are increasingly being used by gangs and organized crime to grow pot and sell it. And they say some of those who legitimately need marijuana for health conditions are falling prey to those who want to misuse their potentially lucrative Health Canada licences for the illicit drug trade.
A lack of communication between Health Canada and law enforcement agencies means there is a grey area that gangsters are exploiting for their own personal gain, police say.
And if those with licences to produce medical marijuana are growing much more than they're entitled to, police for the most part can't do much about it.
"There are gangs that definitely have connections to some people that are involved in legal grows and it certainly looks like they are trying to expand that way," MacDonald said.
"And now you know that in most circumstances, the police are not getting through the door."
Supt. Brian Cantera, who heads the RCMP's Federal Drug Enforcement Branch in B.C., said police know the licences are being misused, but have a difficult time building cases that could hold up in court because of the medical licences.
"What we are seeing and the intelligence we are receiving is that largely medicinal marijuana grow ops today are operating solely under the guise of the licence to protect their criminal activity," Cantera said.
"There are numerous licence holders out there that are growing way beyond the actual amounts of the licences. There are those who are possessing quantities far in excess of what their licence allows them."
Not only are some of the legal growers supplying criminal traffickers, they open themselves up to being violently robbed, putting themselves and their neighbours at risk, police say.
"In terms of public safety, I have got to remind the public on this one, medicinal marijuana grow ops come with all the same ramifications to public safety that illegal ones do," Cantera said. "If one sets up beside you, you would be absolutely alarmed in terms of the public safety issue for you."
Cantera said he gets regular calls from people wondering what they can do if a medical marijuana operation starts beside them.
"There is of course the potential for a rip-off and with you living next door, the potential they'll get the wrong house. We have seen these things. We are not making this stuff up," Cantera said.
"I have had calls to my office where people have said I will take an illegal one before I will take a medical one because at least I can
report the illegal one and the police might be able to do something."
Health Canada officials refused repeated requests for an interview to discuss police concerns about medical-marijuana licences.
They did agree to answer some questions via email, but did not respond to several followup queries.
The federal government issues three kinds of medical marijuana licences: one for possession; one for production and a third one for people designated to grow for medical pot users.
Over the last year, the number of people with licences to possess medical marijuana more than doubled to 10,500 on April 29, 2011 from 4,869 a year earlier.
Within that group, the number of licence holders more than tripled in B.C. from 1,368 in March 2010 to 4,869 as of last month.
The total number of production licences nationally also more than doubled over the last 18 months from 3,576 in January 2010 to 7,967 last month. That includes 5,983 personal use production licences and 1,984 designated person production licences.
Health Canada refused to provide a provincial breakdown for production licences, claiming that number is protected for privacy reasons.
Government officials did not respond to questions about how a general provincial figure could violate anyone's privacy.
Cantera said the sheer increase in the number of licences over a relatively short period could be a sign of the increasing number of organized crime groups trying to get access to legally grown pot.
Police have collected some data on criminal issues related to the medical marijuana licences they have encountered. But Cantera said the data are incomplete as they deal only with the medical growing operations that have come to the attention of police.
Still, he said, a review of the medical-licence files across Canada where police have been called in shows that in about 50 per cent of the cases, the growing operation was linked to someone with a trafficking or production conviction.
In about a third of the operations police investigated, the licence holders were growing more marijuana than their licence permitted,
Cantera said, adding that police concerns have been passed on to Health Canada.
Even when police find some criminal activity at legal marijuana-growing operations, it is often difficult to build a case for charges, Cantera said.
The fact that a licence exists provides defence lawyers with a reasonable-doubt argument and makes a criminal conviction unlikely.
"There are not a lot of cases out there where there have been prosecutions," Cantera said. "Once they get co-mingled with these medical licences, it makes it very challenging for prosecutors and law enforcement to move forward. The criminal element knows that.
"This is where medicinal marijuana is in my view being almost entirely abused by a lot of people who have actually acquired licences."
Health Canada official Leslie Meerburg cited regulations when asked about the abuse police have documented.
"Individuals who disregard the requirements of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and its regulations, or the terms and conditions of their authorization to possess and/or licence to produce, may be subject to law enforcement measures," she said in an email.
And she quoted the regulation that licence-holders must provide documentation that they have not been found guilty of a drug offence over the last 10 years.
Police say that sometimes the spouse of a licence-holder is the one with the criminal record for trafficking, yet that does not affect the issuance of a licence.
Meerburg said Health Canada works closely with police to ensure criminals are not abusing the system.
"Health Canada is currently considering measures to reform the Marijuana Medical Access Program and its regulations," she said. "In its considerations, the department is focusing on three key objectives: public health, safety and security; providing access to marijuana for medical purposes and examining the overall costs to Health Canada."
Just last month, Prince George RCMP executed a search warrant at a duplex in relation to a marijuana-growing operation. In one half of the duplex, they found 308 pot plants growing and 45 pounds of dried marijuana.
They also found a homemade door through the wall and into the other half of the duplex, whose occupants had two medical marijuana licences.
"Far more plants were being produced than allowed," Cpl. Craig Douglass said in an interview. "A second search warrant was obtained for the other half of the duplex. A total of 216 plants were located on this half of the duplex. The Health Canada permits were for 49 plants and 73 plants, for a total of 122 plants. The excess 90 plants were removed by police."
There was also hashish in the residence and one of the Health Canada permits was for a Burnaby address, not the Prince George duplex. A 20-year-old woman and a 32-year-old man were arrested and later released. The investigation continues, but no charges have yet been laid.
Douglass said the duplex scenario is not unique in Prince George and the surrounding area, where police are seeing more medical growing operations with production well in excess of what is stipulated on the licence.
"We certainly are coming across it," Douglass said. But because of the legal permit, "it makes it much more difficult for us to get a warrant."
At a growing operation in Okanagan Falls last year, Penticton RCMP found three medical marijuana licences with the names on them not associated with the property.
They also found two loaded guns and pot far in excess of what was stipulated on the licences, Cpl. Brad Myhre said. Some of the plants on the site were the size of small Christmas trees.
Two men were arrested. Charges were approved against only one of them: Robert Ryan Brown, 40, faces charges of production of a controlled substance and possession for purpose of trafficking. He is due back in court in October.
Myhre said the two guns — a .357 magnum handgun and a loaded .30-30 calibre rifle — were seized, but no charges were approved in connection with them.
Back in Abbotsford, police have also encountered growing operations where the licences have been combined, creating much larger operations that become the target of thieves.
"The largest legal marijuana site that we are aware of is actually the combination of three licences and each of the licences is for 195 plants — so that is almost 600 plants," MacDonald said. "So each of the licences allows for the storage of 8.75 kilograms of dried marijuana in addition to the plants.... How would they go through that quantity of dried marijuana?"
MacDonald said another local resident, who just got a medical growing licence this year, was involved in two earlier police incidents.
In 2005, the man was the subject of a Ministry of Children and Family Development investigation after 160 illegal plants were found in his home. The following year, shots were fired at his house when someone attempted to rob his illegal growing operation.
"So this is a guy who had the ministry involved in an investigation because he had an illegal grow and the ministry was concerned because he was exposing his kids to it, right? That same person, the following year, had shots fired at his place where there is a grow and now essentially Health Canada has said: Green light. Go, as far as the kids are concerned, as far as the last violent incident goes -that has nothing to do with your health."
BY KIM BOLAN,
VANCOUVER SUN MAY 24, 2011
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