Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The OTHER cash crop

Harvest season has RCMP on high alert for 'farmers' filling baggies

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It's harvest time in Manitoba, and across the province growers are busily reaping what they've sown.

And RCMP Cpl. Don Coker can tell you exactly how all the reaping is playing out.

"People are going out to their grows," Coker said. "They're cutting down their plants. They're taking the buds off the plants, manicuring it. Drying, then packaging it up for sale. That's happening right now."

Coker isn't concerned about the crops being put into bins. He's looking for the ones harvested into bags.

This is "bud season," after all, when illicit outdoor marijuana grow operations morph into commercial enterprises. And for Coker, the RCMP's grow investigation co-ordinator in Manitoba, this is when high season takes root.

Although Coker's office is usually monitoring anywhere between 20 and 30 investigations on any given day year-round, the activity associated with harvest typically creates a spike in tips that primarily involve two types of grows: Personal and commercial.

The former are folks who grow a few dozen plants that might last them a year. The latter are mostly highly sophisticated operations run by organized crime that can produce crops worth up to $1 million on the street.

"We all have priorities, and a small personal grow is far from one of my priorities," Coker said. "I'm always looking at large-scale, commercial organized crime grows. They're all across the province. I've personally been involved with three in the last couple of months that were in the excess of 700 plants.

"And when you look at a 700 plant grow that's making half-a-pound (0.2 kilograms) per (plant) or a little less, that's 300 pounds (136 kg) of marijuana. Some guy from Interlake, Manitoba is not going to have the resources to just go to his buddies and sell 300 pounds of marijuana. We're looking at almost a million dollars. There has to be a network in place to dispose of that in some method. There has to be a distributor. It has to go down to the upper-level dealers. It has to go to the street dealers.

"Manitoba is an export province, there's no doubt about that. We make more weed here than we smoke. There's huge grows out there. And organized crime is the root of it all."

It may seem a cat-and-mouse proposition -- or more accurately finding a needle in a haystack -- but Coker stressed illegal grow-ops that can be hidden in any football field (or less) sized patch of property in rural communities are not benign enterprises.

"Organized crime doesn't just grow marijuana in rural areas," he said. "They have to exert their presence to protect their product, to protect their harvest. It's not like they just go out in isolation. It can be a very dangerous world. People rip of other people's grows. They'll steal their equipment. There's violence, firearms."

What's a few plants in a farmer's field? Or in a small opening surrounded by a cluster of bushes in the Middle of Nowhere, Manitoba?

In fact, in 2011 RCMP uncovered 53 illegal grow operations, seizing enough plants to cover an entire football field.

"I think there's some sort of perception that marijuana is the lesser of drugs," noted RCMP media spokeswoman Tara Seel. "But the fact of the matter is, this is an illegal drug. It is connected to organized crime, and these people are in the community. That's something that's often overlooked, is that organized crime is in small-town Manitoba where these grow operations are. People need to know the seriousness of it.

"It's not isolated to where the plants are. There's far-reaching effects."

Perhaps that's why the primary goal of RCMP investigations isn't just to uncover grow-ops, period, since production is only the starting point.

"I'm not going to go into investigational technique," Coker said. "Obviously, that's something we want to keep very tight to our chest. But I can tell you that getting the guy who's just generally going out to take care of the plant, that's not our goal. Oftentimes, especially with very large grows, the guys out there taking care of the plants are not the ones responsible. He may be getting $4,000 to $5,000 a month... while somebody else responsible is getting the big dollars."

Coker was also tight-lipped about how they locate grow-ops, only to say, "We have some fantastic equipment. How about this? I'm able to use some of the most advanced surveillance and thermal technology available."

Still, when asked about the percentage of illegal marijuana grows that are never located, Coker bluntly acknowledged, "I won't even make a guess as to how many of them there are. But I have no doubt there's a lot of them out there we don't get, otherwise there wouldn't be product on the street."

In fact, sophisticated technology or not, the main sources for uncovering grow-ops most often begins with Ma and Pa public, sometimes in the most innocuous circumstances.

"We can't just drive down the street and say, 'That's a grow, there's a grow,' Coker said. "Without the public's help... I can't fly around or drive around and look for these things. I need a starting point."

Like the time a farmer went to introduce himself to a new neighbour and asked, "What do you do?" The new guy said, "Cows."

What kind of cows, the farmer asked. "Brown ones," the guy replied.

Phone call made. Investigation started.

So what kind of grow-op clues might make rural folks suspicious?

"People who don't belong in the area," Coker said. "People who are suddenly showing up and going into isolated areas that people don't generally go into. Generally pretty unfriendly.

"Manitoba is a friendly place. When people are unfriendly they stand out."

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 28, 2013 A6

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