Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Neighbourhood grow-ops on rise: police

Say spate of cultivation sites presents hidden but real dangers

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It's a drug you can see people smoking if you stroll around the MTS Centre during a hockey game. It wafts through a packed art opening at an Exchange District loft. It's puffed by people huddling on the sidewalk outside bars and socials.

But where is the marijuana being grown?

Some of it is brought in from out of town, but a sergeant in the Winnipeg Police Service drug unit said he believes there's a "steady increase" in grow operations in Winnipeg.

"In the last 10 years, I think there's been an increase in the number of grow-ops that Winnipeg has experienced," said the officer, who has 27 years' experience in policing. He asked his name not be used.

From February 2012 to Jan. 16, police have listed the addresses of 39 grow-ops on their website.

Some busts are lucrative.

Take an investigation that concluded at a Lindenwood Drive East home earlier this month.

Almost 1,300 plants worth $1.45 million were seized, along with $30,000 of grow-op equipment and $1,500 of dried marijuana.

A 50-year-old man and 49-year-old woman were arrested and charged, then released on a promise to appear.

Police say grow-ops carry special risks because they're homes where drugs are not just sold, but made. "There's a lot of hazards that go from mould, high humidity, structural problems because of the high humidity... you'll get warping of the floors and the walls," said the sergeant. "I've been in homes where they have beautiful hardwoods, $400,000, $500,000 homes... and they're buckling because the humidity is so high in the home."

People can ingest chemicals used to enhance the plant's growth or kill bugs such as spider mites.

There can be hazards from messing with electrical wiring, or from stealing hydroelectricity.

Or the mould in the property on Lindenwood Drive.

"In the entranceway, the ceiling was hanging, it looked like a blanket almost -- it was so wet and black with mould that you were afraid that roof was going to fall on you," he said.

There's also the risk of fire. So why take the chance?

The sergeant said grow-ops can be "very profitable," and that greed for profit is the driving force.

Each plant is worth about $1,100, he said.

"There's a lot of different cells or groups out there that produce marijuana for different levels, and I think the general public gets confused... they say they're a casual, responsible consumer of marijuana and they don't see the ill effect," he said.

"They're not looking at the other cells that are (fuelling) organized crime through their profits," said the veteran police officer.

That's why part of going after grow-op owners is through their wallets, said Gord Schumacher, the province's director of criminal property forfeiture.

"When you hit them in the pocketbook, in many cases, it hurts more than going to jail," said Schumacher.

So pot growers take steps not to get caught. The Winnipeg Police Service sergeant said grow-ops are now becoming "more transient."

People behind grow-ops are using large air filters -- roughly the size of a hot water tank -- to filter the air.

"If it's filtered, it can be difficult to detect a smell even if it's a large marijuana grow operation," said the sergeant.

Grow-ops can also have cooling systems to reduce heat emanating from the house.

The police website warns one sign of a grow-op may be a house with no snow on the roof, when other homes nearby are blanketed by the white stuff.

And some growers may not be motivated by money.

Jeff Dukeshire, owner of hydroponics business Better Than Nature on Gertrude Avenue, said there's a "huge upswing" in people producing medical marijuana.

"Most of it now is starting to become medical grows," said Dukeshire.

"There's been a lot of licences in town. So we're getting a lot of people with licences, and they'll show (them) to us."

He said there's also "most definitely" customers who are running grow-ops.

"My job isn't really to question them too much. Reality is... they come in, they're not telling you and you're not asking," he said.

Pot, on my block?

Streets where police have discovered a grow operation:

700 block of Warsaw Avenue, January 2012;

100 block of Park Grove, February 2012;

First 100 block of Berrydale Avenue, July 2012;

First 100 block of Meadow Lake Drive, June 2012.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 26, 2013 A13

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