The damage that a marijuana grow-op can do to a home in a residential area has been well-documented, but police say outdoor marijuana farms - generally hidden in farmers' fields or on remote properties - are also a danger to the community.
Recently an Ottawa-area family was surprised to find more than 100 marijuana plants growing on their wooded 12-hectare property. The plants were in a clearing in the middle of a thick forest, on part of the property that is rarely visited by the family members, yet is only about 1,000 metres from the back of their home. Police were notified and came to remove the plants.
In another typical story, a farmer in Manitoba found unknown plants growing in the middle of his oat crop. He also contacted police and the plants were removed and destroyed.
When these stories were reported on a news websites, reader reaction ranged from jokes about how marijuana was a much more lucrative crop than oats, to criticism of the police for spending their time dealing with these small marijuana farms.
"Marijuana can negatively impact our community in several ways, including decreased real estate values, fire hazards, environmental dangers and the violence and criminal activity associated with the illegal drug market," says Inspector Tim Kimpan of the Cornwall Regional Task Force in Ontario. The force partnered with members of the Canadian Armed Forces, the Ontario Provincial Police, the RCMP, the Canada Border Services Agency and the Ontario Ministry of Revenue and local police. It seized 7,547 plants in a recent series of raids in four Ontario counties.
The RCMP says although some Canadians consider marijuana to be a harmless drug, "marijuana production often fuels a range of criminal activity and violence, which are putting Canadians at risk. There are many individual and community heath and safety concerns with the existence of marijuana grow sites."
Police say organized crime uses the profits from the grow-ops to fund other illegal activities, including trafficking other illegal drugs and importing guns.
The RCMP says in that during the recent Ontario raids, on "two different occasions, officers located 'boobie traps' that could have harmed anyone who would have been walking across the field near the grow operation. In this case they were both bear traps modified with nails."
The force says that in the last 20 years, the cultivation of marijuana "has significantly progressed from the so-called 'mom and pop' grow operations, to ones controlled by organized crime groups. These criminal groups involved in the production and trafficking of marijuana have vastly increased the sophistication and size of their illicit operations."
Just how sophisticated the operations have become was shown earlier this year when authorities in Mission, B.C. raided four grow-ops.
The Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit of British Columbia (CFSEU-BC) says one of the grow-ops was an underground bunker where the venting was camouflaged with a mock doghouse and fire pit. The bunker was concealed by a fake horse paddock.
"Experienced officers describe it as one of the most sophisticated grow-ops they have ever seen," says Sgt. Lindsey Houghton, a spokesperson for the CFSEU-BC.
A few weeks later, a second underground grow-op was found in Langley, B.C. This one included five shipping containers buried beneath a fake hobby farm that included three sheep, a pig and about a dozen dogs. The containers had doorways cut into them to make a continuous pathway, as well as raised walkways.
The CFSEU-BC says it appears the grow-op had been operating for "at least a couple of years" and that it was powered by an industrial-sized natural gas generator, worth an estimated $100,000. "To fuel the underground generator and further conceal the operation from the public and police, it was discovered, to the shock of the officers, that a nearby natural gas pipeline had been cut into and a bypass installed to redirect gas to the generator," says the CFSEU-BC.
The generator's muffler was covered by an old manure spreader.
"These are not the classic marijuana grows in a closet in the basement or even ones seen in typical residential homes," says Houghton. "We are talking about large, highly sophisticated grows that are using the latest technology to boost the growing cycle as well as extremely high levels of security to keep the grow operation concealed from both the police and, more importantly from the grower's perspective, from organizations that exist almost solely to steal or 'rip' grow-operations."
Grow-ops have also been a problem in remote parts of Northern Ontario. Police there asked residents to watch for people who acted secretive about what they were doing in remote areas. They stressed that property owners should not try to confront these individuals, but to note the dates and times when they encountered them, along with vehicle descriptions and licence plate numbers.
Houghton says the lengths that people constructing grow-ops will go to are alarming, but "in spite of their efforts to hide from police, we will continue to target organized crime groups and those people who are the most violent in our communities and how they get their money to further their criminal enterprise."