B.C. police fear medical marijuana licences used increasingly by gangs

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Jun 21, 2007
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Last fall, the Abbotsford police drug squad received a tip about 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, 'OK, 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 leaves 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.

"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 ripoff 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 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.

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 one-third of the operations police investigated, the licence holders were growing more marijuana than their licence permitted.

MacDonald said one Abbotsford 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.'

"So as far as the kids are concerned, as far as the last violent incident goes — that has nothing to do with your health."


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