Personal Use Is OK; the Target Is Growers Who Steal Power; Scratch-and-Sniff Cards
ROTTERDAM, Netherlands—Fire up a joint in the Netherlands? No big deal. Grow marijuana? That's a crime. Getting smoked: the nation's power companies.
Volt-hungry pot farms have been stealing hundreds of millions of dollars of electricity a year. The problem has gotten so bad that one firm has blown a fuse. Stedin Netbeheer BV, a grid operator with 1.8 million customers, is now sending employees on raids with armed police officers, using sophisticated grid analysis to unearth pot plantations.
Last month, it launched an anonymous hot line and mailed out 30,000 scratch-and-sniff cards that smell like fresh cannabis. "People have this image of a nice hippie smoking," says Wolter Meijer, the company's top antifraud official. "The reality is danger and crime."
Growing weed indoors requires water, carbon-dioxide generators and intense light and heat, which leads to hundreds of accidental fires a year. Heavy electricity use is a big red flag for investigators, so cultivators try to avoid detection by tapping into the grid before the meter. That costs Stedin $15 million a year.
It's all part of the country's dissonant attitude toward marijuana. On paper, it's illegal to smoke, buy, sell or grow pot. But the ban on smoking hasn't been enforced since 1976, and coffee shops are licensed to sell small quantities. The paradox puzzles even Dutch law enforcement. "You can smoke it, but you can't grow it," says Erik de Borst, the nation's top anticannabis official. "Where are you supposed to get it?"
From all over Holland, it turns out. There are an estimated 40,000 marijuana plantations in the country. Every year, 5,000 are destroyed, and 5,000 pop back up, police say.
The coffee shops are allowed to stock only 500 grams, so they need frequent resupplies. "The authorities would love to know where we get our weed," said Myriam Kobus, as she oversaw smokers lining up for "White Widow," a popular strain, at the Game, a coffee shop she manages in The Hague. "We don't tell them."
Police say most suppliers are gangs that carve up production, often among lower-income citizens who get paid to turn their residences into grow houses. A batch of 200 plants can be harvested five times a year, with each crop generating $30,000.
Growers are supplying more than the home market. Dutch marijuana goes out by ship and by highway all over Europe, says Peter Reuter, an expert on drug policy at the University of Maryland. The Netherlands produces $3 billion a year, 90% of which is exported, the police estimate.
Pot farms turn up in villas, tomato greenhouses and working-class flats. One gang in Rotterdam has used six trucks as mobile farms, with one batch always ready for selling and smoking, police say. Pot has been found growing in shipping containers buried under swimming pools.
It keeps Mr. Meijer's team of 32 at Stedin busy. They're on the lookout for eight-hour spikes in power use, corresponding to heat-lamp patterns, and for outside air filters, convoluted wiring and roofs that quickly melt snow.
The company first held talks with police in 2004 and has worked increasingly closely with authorities since then.
This year, Mr. Meijer sent out the scented cards and asked customers for help. "We wouldn't ask people to spy," he says. "Just sniff on this card, and if you smell that in your neighborhood, give us a call, and we'll do the rest."
Mr. de Borst, the antidrug official, helped make it happen. Police petitioned the district attorney in Rotterdam for the right to distill 40 kilograms of hemp, seized during a raid, into 50 centiliters of oil. Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, was removed. They found a printer in France to make the cards and secured exemptions from French and Belgian customs.
The 30,000 pamphlets were posted in early November. If the campaign works, it will be rolled out for the whole country.
Loek de Lange, a spokesman for Enexis BV, another grid operator, says his company also works with police, but not as closely as Stedin. "It's a problem for all power companies, and we have to fight together, with the police," he says.
Stedin's anonymous hot line receives one tip per day, on average. Each is investigated, "even if we know it's probably somebody smoking or neighbors who don't like each other," says Mr. Meijer.
On a recent day, two teams set out in unmarked cars from Stedin's headquarters in this port city. Gangs frequently protect their plantations with booby traps, including electrified doors, holes covered by doormats and paint-ball grenades.
John Mulder, a safety inspector for the city, pointed a hand-held heat camera at each suspect home. A dark concentration of heat in an attic is a good clue, he said, "but it can also be a washing machine."
They knocked on doors, checking up on tips called in by neighbors who thought they had smelled something. One middle-age occupant, Younes Kamel, said simply: "I smoke joints." The investigators nodded and left.
Just before noon, one of the teams struck gold at a three-story brick row house. It was unoccupied, so police knocked down the door. Each room on the second and third floors contained more than 100 flower pots brimming with rich, black soil. Marijuana had just been harvested. A trash bag stuffed with stems lay in the front room, near a punching bag.
A panel in a side corridor held transformers and wires to run the lamps. Stedin technicians dismantled it.
A new conservative government, which won elections on a law-and-order platform, wants to shut many of the country's 700 coffee shops and 400 "grow" shops, which legally sell equipment needed to farm hemp.
Advocates are putting up a fight. "It's making marijuana illegal that causes crime and violence," says Fredrick Polak, an Amsterdam psychiatrist who says he smokes a joint every other day. "During prohibition, people weren't killing each other because they were drunk, it was because they had to become criminals."
"It's a good business," says Ms. Kobus, the coffee-shop manager, who says her store takes in several thousand euros a day. "Pot is here to stay."
By JOHN W. MILLER
JANUARY 3, 2011
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