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Cities To Hand Costs To Grow-op Homeowners

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British Columbia
08 Sep 2006


CITIES TO HAND COSTS TO GROW-OP HOMEOWNERS
by Edward Hill,
West Shore municipalities are joining forces to bring the hammer down on homeowners who allow marijuana grow-ops or drug labs on their property.

Langford, Colwood and View Royal are drafting common bylaws that would hand all costs - including police, firefighters, building inspectors and cleanup crews - to the owner if drug operations cause building code violations.

"When a grow-op is found, it's usually at the taxpayers expense. This is a tool for cost recovery," said Kevin Atkinson, Colwood's bylaw enforcement officer.

"It makes the homeowner responsible. You can't be an absentee landlord. You have got to do inspections."

Atkinson said from the moment a drug operation is located, police, fire and other emergency and municipal responders will be asked to track their time for billing to the owner.

That price tag could quickly grow to thousands of dollars. A fire crew of six with a truck comes in at $600 per hour. An RCMP officer or a drug disposal officer costs $52 per hour, while a building inspector runs at $54 per hour.

Grow-op houses are typically rejigged with haphazard venting and electrical wiring, and the plants can infect the house with a toxic mould. Dangerous chemicals from crystal meth labs seep into drywall and can off-gas at a later time.

Atkinson said bringing a building back to code can be very expensive, and would usually require gutting the interior.

Conversely, if a grow-op is found, but the house is still to code the matter would be deferred to the police.

"Our objective is public safety and public health," Atkinson said. "We are dealing with criminal activity by dealing with the health and safety issue."

West Shore RCMP Cpl. Gord Bedingfield estimates the community has "hundreds" of grow-ops, and expects the bylaws to help curb the business.

"There are hundreds we know about. They are everywhere," Bedingfield said.

The three municipalities started working on common controlled substances bylaws after successfully creating unified fireworks bylaws last year.

Similar drug bylaws have been enacted in Saanich, Surrey and other Lower Mainland cities.

Langford has passed first reading of its bylaw, and is bringing it to the Ministry of Health for review. Other municpalities expect to bring their controlled substances bylaws before respective councils this fall.

View Royal administrator Mark Brennan noted the bylaws will allow municipalities to take an active role in public safety, instead of just picking up the tab.

See BYLAWS Page A4

In the past, he said, housing tenants caught with a grow op would disappear, while the owner would plead ignorance.

"The onus is on the property owner, and they cannot wash their hands of the problem," Brennan said.

Complementing the bylaws, but unrelated to them, the province has handed all municipal governments the power to request residential electricity consumption from B.C. Hydro.

The amended Safety Standards Act, enacted in May, allows B.C. Hydro to release lists of houses using more than 93 kilowatt hours per day of electricity, roughly three times the provincial average.

The concept is that high consumption might point to a marijuana grow-op. If consumption is deemed suspicious, municipal electrical inspectors would give the homeowner notice and inspect the house.

Hydro spokesperson Elisha Moreno said the program is designed to protect the public. She said the residential data will not be transferred to police, although police can attend with an electrical inspector.

"It's not meant for police investigations," she said. "The police can make their own requests."

Moreno said municipalities, upon request, will receive 25 months worth of records on flagged houses, and software to help distinguish high consumption from suspicious consumption.

David Loukidelis, B.C.'s privacy commissioner, was critical of the legislation, saying in an April 6 notice: "( S )uch initiatives amount to a form of surveillance, involving compilation and use of information about entire classes of citizens without grounds for individualized suspicion of wrongdoing."

Since May, only one B.C. municipality has requested consumption information, but the name of the community has not been released.

Administrators from Langford, View Royal and Colwood confirmed they expect to request residential electricity data for their respective communities.

"We welcome it," said Atkinson. "It will only make it easier for a municipality to identify where there might be a significant health and safety risk."
 

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