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Police can't keep up with 'grow' houses

Not enough resources to control growth of marijuana operations

Lee Berthiaume

The Ottawa Citizen

Monday, April 01, 2002

Ottawa police say marijuana growing operations owned by organized crime groups from Asia are growing so quickly in the city they can barely make a dent in the illegal businesses.

According to Sgt. Rohan Beebakhee, the operations started on the West Coast about three years ago, spread to Toronto, and are now making their way to Ottawa.

Since August, the Ottawa drug squad has taken out 65 such operations, including one last week.

On Wednesday, police stormed a house containing 401 marijuana plants and $20,000 in equipment. At around noon, eight officers from the tactical unit stormed 50 Cherrywood Dr. where a 42-year-old man and his four-year-old daughter were staying.

Police allege the "grow" was operated by an organized crime group.

Quy Vam Pham was charged with production of a controlled substance, possession for the purpose of trafficking, and possession of proceeds of crime.

Two weeks ago, 371 marijuana plants were seized, and on Jan. 30, $1.3 million in plants were seized in Ottawa alone during a Canada-wide operation called "Project Greensweep."

While police have been making arrests and breaking up operations, Sgt. Beebakhee said, the resources available to these criminal organizations are so vast it's hard to stop their proliferation.

He said organizations often run four or five grow operations at any time, so even if one is raided the organization can make enough profit from the others to absorb the loss.

And with demand for Canadian marijuana at an all time high in the United States, Sgt. Beebakhee said the profits are enormous.

An average operation can yield up to four crops in one year, earning the grower about $1 million. Police estimate each plant to be worth about $1,000 at harvest time.

"They call it Canadian Hydro because of its high THC content," Sgt. Beebakhee said. "It's very lucrative. And they have it down to a science."

Sgt. Beebakhee, who works with the Ottawa police drug unit, said the scene is typical: the operation is usually set up in a small house owned by one person and rented by another, with almost no furniture and no food inside.

But there are a few things that separate the grow house from a normal establishment: the illegal hydro hook-up; thousands of dollars in hydroponics equipment; hundreds of thousands of dollars in marijuana plants.

And police say the operations are set up in every type of neighbourhood, from poor to wealthy.

Sgt. Beebakhee said the groups buy a small house and quickly set up shop, installing equipment, illegally hooking up the hydro and getting the crops under way in controlled batches.

Then, when it's time to harvest, workers are brought in to pick the buds, dry them and separate them. The workers are usually paid about $40-$50 an hour.

Sgt. Beebakhee said it's rare for the owner of a house to be charged because they almost always plead ignorance, insisting they were just renting the house and didn't know what was going on inside.

New measures have been proposed to help fight the operations, such as giving hydro companies the ability to cut electricity to a house suspected of running a growing operation.

Police estimate there are now about 50 to 200 illegal hydroponic operations in the city --an "unprecedented" number police want to eliminate.

With only 12 officers in a unit dealing with narcotics-related crimes, Ottawa police say they need new strategies to deal with the problem.

Sgt. Beebakhee said police can only do so much with the limited amount of resources they have.

Staff Sgt. Marc Pinault, who heads the Ottawa police drug unit, has also said the problem is worsening.

"I've never seen it like this," he said. "They are everywhere. No neighbourhood is free of them."

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