Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tale of massive grow-op in Ontario brings plenty of smoke, but little fire

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Smoke of a literary variety, and plenty of it, wafts from the pages of Mark Coakley's most recent true-crime effort, Hidden Harvest: The Rise and Fall of North America's Biggest Cannabis Grow-Op. The Hamilton writer and former lawyer puffs this figurative smoke in the early going of Hidden Harvest with, presumably, the intention of fiery revelations to follow.

Unfortunately, no payoff comes, leaving readers with the written equivalent of someone blowing smoke in their faces.

Coakley's well-researched attempt to uncover the forces at work in this massive grow-op (hidden in an abandoned Molson brewery north of Toronto) presents a wealth of narrow, surface details, but is poor on the interior powers at play. It's made all the more disappointing because the stuff of this tale -- the gang of colourful characters, the audacity of the operation and our society's increasing ambivalence toward the illegality of cannabis -- is so rich and timely.

Hidden Harvest is a bit of a jumbled mess; it reads as part biography, part grow-op for dummies and part notes of a court stenographer. While the author seductively introduces the work as the uprooting of "a cryptic nursery of forbidden flowers," of "a secret, beautiful, doomed garden in the heart of Ontario," the narrative style rather quickly slides into the less metaphoric and more pedestrian grooves of third-person, straight-ahead, long-form journalism.

Structurally, Hidden Harvest hews to a chronological telling. The story is divided into two parts: the build-up and bust, which basically takes place from late 2001 to early 2004, and the hunt and prosecution of the masterminds, which essentially concludes in 2011.

The first part dishes out thin, breezy, biographical sketches of those involved in the planning, construction and operation of the grow-op. This part also offers a superabundance of facts regarding the construction of an industrial grow-op and the technical challenges of farming indoor cannabis.

Lazy or disorganized criminals take note: this ain't the gig for you. At its peak, the ex-brewery outside Barrie housed more than 21,000 growing plants that produced 4,860 kilograms (10,800 pounds) of weed for gross revenues of about $30 million a year.

The second portion of the book tackles the costly police operation to capture and convict those atop this criminal operation. Large chunks of this section include transcripts of secret audio recordings of an informant.

If the reader hadn't noticed in the first half, Coakley makes more overt his distaste for many of the social and financial costs of policing pot, although never abandoning the third person to say this directly.

Hidden Harvest's best insights are in the ordinariness of it all. There's an odd familiarity to the production routines at the grow-op, as there is with many of the concerns of those working there, both employees and managers.

It seems the truer crime story here is not so much in the smoke puffed up by talk of "cryptic nurseries" and "doomed gardens" -- or in its record scale, or even in the thousands of pages of Canadian and U.S. court documents -- but rather rolled up in the everyday lives of those drawn to this illegal business.

And it's from there -- from within those lives, not without -- the story is probably best told.


Greg Di Cresce is a Winnipeg journalist and erstwhile crime reporter.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2014 G7


Updated on Saturday, May 3, 2014 at 8:08 AM CDT: Tweaks formatting.

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