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Back to Archives | Back to March 2005 Contents 

Indoor Marijuana Growing Operations

By Armand P. La Barge, Chief of Police, and Karen Noakes, Detective Sergeant, York Regional Police, Ontario, Canada

Indoor Marijuana Growing Operations
Photographs courtesy York Regional Police

n 1999 law enforcement in the province of British Columbia identified a phenomenon involving indoor marijuana grow operations that were largely controlled by organized crime. It was estimated that one out of every eight homicides in the province was a grow-related murder. By 2001 police in the province of Ontario had identified the same alarming phenomenon.

It has been estimated that between 2000 and 2002 the number of grow operations in Ontario had increased by at least 250 percent and that in 2002 there may have been as many as 15,000 grow operations active in the province. During 2001 police services across southern Ontario executed 650 search warrants in relation to indoor marijuana grow operations, compared to 160 in 2000.

Indoor marijuana grow operations are major funding sources for a variety of organized criminal activities. It is estimated that between the years 2000 and 2003 Ontario police services could seize more than 1.2 million plants from grow operations. In that same time period, these operations are capable of producing 1.2 million kilograms (2.6 million pounds) of marketable marijuana with a revenue generation of $10.1 billion.1

Canada now has the dubious distinction of being a main source country for marijuana exportation. There has been a dramatic increase in the amount of marijuana being seized at Canada's border with the United States. In 1998 authorities seized 369 kilograms (813 pounds) of marijuana; in 2002 they seized 9,477 kilograms (20,893 pounds). It is suspected that the majority of marijuana being grown in Canada is being exported to the United States and in some cases exchanged for cocaine that is brought to Canada for resale. As cannabis has become more powerful and more addictive, the demand for this product has increased. Organized crime groups have found in marijuana a product that provides them with a low-risk yet lucrative business.

During 2001 several police services and agencies across Ontario began collaborating and identified the need for a formal multiagency strategy. Operation Green Sweep was the beginning. This operation involved police services throughout Canada executing search warrants on indoor marijuana grow operations on the same day (January 30, 2002). Operation Green Sweep involved almost 1,000 officers executing 189 search warrants and seizing 56,000 plants valued at more than $44.6 million in one day.

This one-day operation was a catalyst for York Regional Police to solidify efforts to combat the constant threat that indoor marijuana grow operations posed to the community.

Everyone Pays for Marijuana Grow Operations
Marijuana plants grown using hydroponics require light, oxygen, nutrients, minerals, water, and carbon dioxide in their environment. The highly oxygenated, nutrient-enriched surrounding allows the plants to flourish and can yield a marijuana crop every three to four months. Some of the nutrient solutions include phosphorous, sulfur, and calcium. Hydroponic equipment can be easily purchased. Initial start-up costs for equipment and supplies for a grow operation is estimated at $25,000. Other costs associated with the operation could include such things as rent, maintenance, electricity, renovations to accommodate the operation, and various supplies for each crop.

The most cost-prohibitive element of an indoor marijuana grow operation is the cost of the electricity required to run the lighting systems. Grow operations often steal electricity by tampering with meters or, more commonly, by diverting the electricity from the main supply line with a bypass. At one point, a regional hydroelectric utility company reported that an overwhelming amount of residences were stealing power to operate these grow operations. The average bypass steals electricity worth between $1,100 and $1,600 per month.

In 2002, a York Region utility serving a population of about 300,000 disconnected 191 grow operations that stole electricity worth roughly $1 million, and the utility estimates that 450 grow operations in the region stole a total of $2.5 million in electricity in 2002. In 2003 the same York Region utility disconnected 373 sites. Hydroelectric companies throughout Ontario have employees who specialize in disconnecting hydroelectric services, repairing structural damage, and recovering lost revenue from electricity bypass thieves. Eventually the cost of the stolen electricity is passed on to the consumer. The York Region utility claimed that in 2002 each paying customer paid an additional $40 to cover the utility's losses from hydro theft, repair costs, and administrative fees.

Grow Operations Endanger Everyone
The Electrical Distributors Association indicates that grow operations can consume upwards of 300 kilowatt-hours per day, which is 10 times the average household electricity consumption. This is obviously a concern, as transformers are often unequipped to handle such high loads. The Electrical Safety Authority has warned that grow operations may be responsible for contributing to summertime shortages of electricity in Ontario, and may raise the risk of reducing the available voltage or blackouts.

Electrocution: The potential for electrocution is real. The process of creating a hydroelectric bypass to steal electricity involves the digging and exposing of a 10,000-watt wire that is attached to the hydroelectric meter. Ballasts are then used to convert the 10,000-watt wire into the 60,000 watts often required to run the growing lights. The wire outside of the home is exposed and not grounded. This can result in the possibility of the surrounding grounds being charged, making them dangerous and even lethal to an innocent person passing by or to any emergency response service, including police, fire, and ambulance. Even after hydroelectric power is cut, the interior of the dwelling can still pose a serious risk because the ballast and capacitor used to boost the wattage can still retain an electrical charge.

Fire: During 2001 and 2002, 4 percent of grow operations in Ontario experienced fire. This rate is consistent with the rate in British Columbia, where 3.5 percent of grow operations experienced fire between 1997 and 2000. The likelihood of fire in a grow operations is 40 times greater than a private dwelling. Chemicals that are often stored at grow operations include liquid nutrients, fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides that could create toxic smoke if ignited, and chemical spills at grow operations also create a risk of land and water pollution. The typical loss resulting from a residential fire is $29,000. Most of this cost is assumed by insurance companies and is ultimately passed on to the general public through increased premiums.

The potential for explosions in grow operations is very real. Grow operations provide an environment that contains oxygen, high volumes of nitrogen, and accelerants. A spark from a badly wired hydroelectric bypass is all that is required to cause an explosion. Quite often, flammable chemicals are found in close proximity to electrical wiring.

Carbon Dioxide: Carbon dioxide enhances plant growth but poses serious health risks to humans. High concentrations can displace oxygen in the air, resulting in oxygen deficiency, combined with the effects of carbon dioxide toxicity. Operators will sometimes disconnect furnace piping to vent the pungent smell of the marijuana plants, resulting in the release of carbon monoxide. Some operators mistakenly believe that the carbon monoxide enhances plant growth; acting on that belief could result in carbon monoxide poisoning.

Molds: Grow operations contain a high level of humidity and are prone to the build-up of various molds. These molds can be damaging to human health, causing or aggravating immunological diseases such as hay fever, allergies, asthma, infections, and even cancer. Residents of the active grow operation risk this exposure.

Quite often, during the execution of search warrants, York Regional Police have observed medication for upper respiratory problems belonging to the residents. Upon execution of a search warrant at a grow operation, police secure the residence and then immediately open doors and windows to get a fresh flow of oxygen through the home. Headaches, dizziness, and nausea are common complaints upon initial entry into an indoor grow operation due to the poor air quality.

The long-term effects of exposure to mold and various chemicals that are often present are yet to be determined. What is concerning is that these grow operations are often repaired with a layer of plaster and paint over the mold, thereby endangering future renters or buyers. It is estimated that the cost to repair a house that has hosted an indoor grow operation and return it to habitable conditions is $32,000 to $40,000.

Booby Traps: Rivals sometimes vandalize or otherwise interfere with indoor marijuana grow operations to gain a business advantage. To protect their investments, operators have been known to take defensive measures and set up booby traps such as points of entry rigged to cause electrical shocks to anyone entering a dwelling, noxious compounds set up to be released upon entry to a dwelling, jars of nitric acid placed in areas to spill on intruders, and a plank of wood and metal parts rigged to detonate a shotgun shell. These traps pose a serious threat to first responders and any community member. In British Columbia, between 1997 and 2000, 2 percent of grow operations were found to contain hazards such as booby traps and explosives.

York's Operational Strategy
One of the goals of the York Regional Police 2002-2004 business plan is to "continue to increase our knowledge and understanding of hydroponic marijuana grows, including the development of appropriate and safe enforcement strategies." This goal and the absolute need for ongoing participation with the community resulted in the development of the York Regional Police Indoor Marijuana Grow Operation Strategy.

The operational strategy has many elements. For enforcement there is a street-level grow enforcement team; and recently an investigative team was formed to target grower hierarchy. There is a community outreach program to educate residents about the problem and tell them how they can detect a marijuana grow operation, and there is a mechanism enabling community members to report suspicious locations. The news media are regularly updated to keep the information in front of the community.

York Regional Police also work closely with the region's hydroelectric utilities. Investigations have revealed that electricity is the major component required to grow marijuana indoors. Without the electricity, growers are not capable of producing large quantities of marijuana.

Over the last several years, the hydroelectric utilities have proactively sought and identified the theft of power, and as a result more marijuana growers have started to pay for the power. The growers believe that the hydroelectric utility will not notify the police if they pay for the power consumed. The fact that the power is being paid for does not reduce the safety concerns, as these grow houses are usually improperly wired.

The hydroelectric utilities work closely with York police. The utilities help identify possible indoor grow operations where large amounts of power are being used and notify police when they discover utility theft.

The Electrical Safety Authority (a provincial agency) has the power to inspect the premises when notified by the electrical utility that suspicious electrical activity is taking place inside the premises.

If they inspect the premises and discover an unsafe electrical situation, they disconnect the premises from electrical service. If they discover marijuana, they notify the police, who can then obtain and execute a search warrant and seize the marijuana.

Among the other partners the agency hopes to work more closely with in the future are insurance companies, real estate boards, and financial institutions. At this time these agencies can contact the York Regional Police Freedom of Information Bureau to determine whether a residence has housed a grow operation that was investigated by the police service.

Ongoing Effort
The York Regional Police Indoor Marijuana Grow Operation Strategy is an ongoing effort of the police, community, and businesses. New partnerships continue to flourish among the businesses, the community, and the police. Feedback continues to be a critical component of York's strategic direction and the indoor marijuana grow operations continues to be policing priority in York.

In 2003, members of the Drugs and Vice Enforcement Bureau executed 173 warrants, laying 345 charges against 136 people and seizing marijuana worth nearly $40 million. In 2004, 132 warrants were executed, with 120 people facing 247 charges and marijuana worth more than $30 million seized.

Of growing concern is the fact police are finding more and more children living in these toxic residences. In 2003 in York Region, 22 children were discovered living in marijuana grow operations; in 2004, that number had risen to 39. ■

1 All monetary amounts expressed in U.S. dollars.



From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 3, March 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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