U.S. Pot War Comes North

Ever since the U.S. State Department leaked word a little more than a year ago that it was considering adding Canada to its list of major drug-exporting countries -- thanks to massive bud exports from grow operations -- cops in Canada have been anxious to prove they're not going soft on weed. Police forces across the country have been on a rampage, busting any and every grow operation in sight.

The rash of busts culminated last week in the much-publicized cross-country Operation Green Sweep, which police say netted law enforcement authorities more than 46,000 plants, most of them destined for the U.S.

"Green Teams" have been assembled to investigate indoor cannabis cultivation. Overall seizures, according to figures in RCMP and other reports, have increased by 30 per cent.

Regional police forces in and around the GTA -- Peel, Durham and York -- report a four-fold increase in busts of grow operations between 2000 and 2001.

Scott Hogarth, head of the OPP's Toronto-area drug enforcement unit, says detachments throughout the province have anywhere from 40 to 100 addresses of suspected grow operations that the cops are targeting.

"That's all we're concentrating on right now," Hogarth says. "It's becoming all-encompassing." The story is much the same in BC and Quebec, where hundreds of pot-growing operations have been busted every year of the last three.

This country was supposed to be reviewing its drug policy. Both the Senate and House have struck committees to re-evaluate Canada's drug laws. The courts have mandated decriminalizing pot for medical purposes. Polls on both ends of the political spectrum, including the right-wing Fraser Institute, have turned over a new leaf, declaring the "war on drugs" a failure and advocating decriminalization.

But if Operation Green Sweep and the hundreds of busts that preceded it prove anything, it's that reefer madness is back -- with a vengeance.

The old arguments used by law enforcement to demonize weed -- that pot is addictive, leads to heroin, etc -- have been proven wrong. They've been replaced by new ones to justify the crackdown, among them that pot growers are stealing electricity to run their grow rooms (and creating fire hazards to avoid detection in the process) and polluting the environment by dumping the pesticides and herbicides they use into the sewer system. The message: pot hits people where they live.

Police have also taken to pushing the outrage button. The stats provided to media for Operation Green Sweep, for example, included info that children, 28 in all, were found living in "dangerous and deplorable" conditions in homes where basements were used to grow pot.

Police have also been anxious to link the operations to violent organized crime, in particular to Vietnamese gangs and outlaw motorcycle outfits like the Hell's Angels. Their own stats, however, seem to indicate that most of the grow operations busted are small to medium in scale (on average, fewer than 200 plants), not the size one normally equates with international drug trafficking operations.

To hear RCMP inspector Ron Allen tell it, however, what the police are dealing with is a problem more pressing than heroin.

"This is not like some drug deal happening in the alleyway," Allen says. "This is happening in your backyard, in your neighborhood."

In Allen's mind, there's no distinction to be drawn between pot and heroin or cocaine. "You can't separate (pot) out. It's all part of the same package, man."

It's a familiar refrain, but perhaps not surprising. It wasn't too long ago that a senior Mountie appeared on the cover of a national police magazine claiming that marijuana use results in THC accumulating in gonads.

Statements issued by the RCMP commissioner's office in recent years also speak of a public relations strategy aimed at raising health concerns associated with pot use, despite expert evidence to the contrary offered in court cases and elsewhere.

Although they protest that Canada is not engaged in a "war on drugs," spokespeople in the foreign affairs department still use the expression.

How much of police's renewed emphasis on pot up north is a consequence of U.S. authorities' concerns about the marijuana flowing south is difficult to know. "They certainly challenge us on certain issues," says Allen.

When Vancouver instituted its needle exchange program for heroin addicts, for example, then U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffery protested. Canadian judges have also been criticized by the U.S. government for being too lenient. But the Drug Enforcement Administration is not eager to parse the question. It refers NOW to the U.S. embassy in Ottawa, which declines to comment.

Ethan Nadelmann of the Washington-based Drug Policy Alliance, formerly the Lindesmith Center, says he's personally aware of confidential conversations between Canadian authorities and high-ranking U.S. officials, including the U.S. ambassador to Canada himself.

Logically, it would make perfect sense. The war on drugs has long been a major plank of U.S. foreign policy.

"The U.S. government does make its views strongly felt and heard in Ottawa," Nadelmann says. "Canada's increasing liberalization policy on cannabis bothers them."

Why? The fear is that liberalization here would push the decriminalization debate forward in the U.S., a point that pro-pot New Mexico governor Gary Johnson made in a submission last November to the Canadian Senate committee on drug policy: "You will change public opinion, in my opinion, for the majority of Americans."

Contact the author at enzom@nowtoronto.com.

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