100 RAIDS, NO ARRESTS FOR POLICE POT SQUAD
Vancouver Police Didn't Even Try To Lay Charges Against Marijuana Growers
A Vancouver police team set up specifically to deal with the city's booming marijuana industry hasn't arrested a single suspect despite raiding more than 100 growing operations over the past year, a Vancouver Sun investigation has found.
The absence of arrests and criminal charges by the ``Grow Busters'' team is due to a controversial decision -- apparently unique in the Lower Mainland -- that police resources are better spent shutting down more growing operations than trying to build criminal cases against offenders.
The Grow Busters policy has been criticized by some -- including officers within the police department itself -- for essentially allowing marijuana growers to get away with their crimes.
And civil libertarians say the policy may be an abuse of police powers, since Grow Busters is using search warrants to destabilize the drug industry, rather than to gather evidence for criminal charges.
Grow Busters, a unit of six patrol constables established earlier this year, seizes the marijuana it finds during raids while city staff shut off the electricity and declare the premises unfit for occupancy.
But no effort is made to identify who is behind the operations so they can be criminally charged. ( Some growers are still arrested and charged in separate investigations carried out by the Vancouver police department's drug squad. )
Grow Busters does not do surveillance of suspected growing operations to observe who visits them. They raid growing operations during the day -- when city inspectors can attend -- even though police know growers usually maintain their plants at night.
And, in some cases, police do not even investigate people they find living inthe same house as a growing operation during a raid.
``Do we use the resources to try and prove those folks have been in there? That would mean fingerprinting and photographing and a lot of things,'' said Inspector Val Harrison, who oversees Grow Busters. ``We have made the decision at this point that ... our resources are better spent in going onto the next warrant execution.''
Controversy over Grow Busters' policy led to the team's amalgamation this fall into the Vancouver police drug squad.
But Harrison says Grow Busters is still a defined group of officers that will continue to focus on shutting down a large number of growing operations rather than trying to arrest perpetrators.
While careful not to criticize the Vancouver police department directly, drug investigators with other police forces expressed shock that a police unit would decide arresting people is not part of its job.
``The deterrent factor is removed ... if the cops are just going around knocking places down and not paying any attention to who's behind it,'' Corporal Gary Begg, a spokesman for Langley RCMP, said when told by The Sun of the Vancouver policy.
Begg added Langley's growing-operation busting ``Green Team'' usually does preliminary surveillance on suspected growing operations before a raid. ``We always try to associate people with the product,'' he said.
Begg could not provide detailed arrest statistics for Langley.
But Delta police say the 97 warrants they executed on growing operations in the first nine months of this year have led to 115 arrests.
Corporal John Furac, a team leader with Surrey RCMP's drug squad, said Surrey's Green Team averages about one arrest per raid and makes heavy use of surveillance.
``I can't speak for other police forces,'' Furac said. ``But our intent is to put people in jail. Running around just taking the plants doesn't do anything. You might as well just leave the plants there. ... If [marijuana growers] are not going to get prosecuted, they'll just keep doing it.''
Without criminal charges, Furac said, police have little hope of reaching the organized crime groups believed to be behind many of the operations.
``If you just take one house off and don't do any further looking into it, the organization may have 10 more,'' he said. ``So what have you done? You haven't taken the head off the snake.''
Furac also said gathering enough evidence for a criminal charge doesn't take that much effort.
``By the time you get to the point you're doing a search warrant, 90 per cent of your work is done,'' he said. ``If you're going to go through all that work and trouble to get a search warrant, why not go that extra step and grab onto the person?''
Courts have been lenient on marijuana growers in the past ( a Vancouver Sun investigation last year found only one in five growers received jail sentences ). But courts appear to have adopted a tougher attitude lately, sentencing some growers to one or two years in jail.
Still, Harrison questioned whether arresting and charging growers would do much good.
``What have we accomplished by trying to throw people in jail? Have we got less marijuana in Vancouver? No, I think we have more marijuana,'' she said. ``I'm not certain that that's a deterrent at all. What happened when the Americans smashed the [cocaine] cartels in Colombia? Do they have less cocaine in the United States as a result? If we could figure out how to take the profit out of the business, that would be the deterrent.''
The amalgamation of Grow Busters and the drug squad means Grow Busters' searches and arrests are no longer independently tracked. But Harrison confirmed in an interview that, prior to the two units being merged, Grow Busters made no arrests.
``Seventy-five per cent of the time we haven't encountered anybody in the house,'' she said. ``The other 25 per cent of the time, there have been people in the home, but they haven't been in the grow. ... The grows are all locked off. ... We understand there perhaps is involvement, but it's a matter of proving the involvement.''
That would require dusting grows for fingerprints and other investigative techniques -- all of which would take significant police time the department believes is better spent on more raids.
Told of Grow Busters' policy, Murray Mollard, policy director with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said: ``Normally, society expects the police to pursue a prosecution when they find adequate evidence of a serious criminal offence.
``The fact that the police are obtaining search warrants with no intent of prosecuting is cause for concern.''
Greg DelBigio, a Vancouver defence lawyer, raised concerns about the way Grow Busters obtains search warrants.
``In applying for a search warrant, the law requires that police provide `full, fair and frank' disclosure as to why they believe a warrant is necessary,'' DelBigio said. ``If, at the outset, it is the intent of the police to simply seize and destroy evidence rather than to use the evidence to advance a prosecution -- then arguably that is information that should be disclosed at the time the search warrant is being applied for.''
In dozens of applications for search warrants reviewed by The Sun, none informed the justice of the peace that police had no intention of pursuing a criminal investigation.
But DelBigio said police are unlikely to be challenged in court on the issue.
``One of the problems with this is you're never going to get a court to test this because no one whose [marijuana] plants were taken is going to go before a judge to say it's unfair,'' DelBigio said.
Harrison said city lawyers and federal Crown prosecutors have told police they are doing nothing wrong.
``Once we're inside [a grow-operation], there's a decision to be made about how we're going to use the resources we've got to proceed with the investigation,'' Harrison said. She said police have talked to the federal department of justice and city hall about that. ``And they're quite prepared to say: `Look, you guys have the discretion to make those kinds of decisions.'''
Grow Busters was established in large part because the size of the growing-operation problem in Vancouver became too large for the drug squad to handle alone. Police have estimated there are as many as 4,000 growing operations in the city of Vancouver alone.
Under the old system, police found that once they arrested people for growing marijuana, they would set up again at the same address after being released from jail.
But when city inspectors attend with police, Grow Busters can turn off utilities and declare a property unsafe to occupy so a growing operation cannot be re-established there immediately.
The program also encourages landlords to be more vigilant in keeping track of their properties, because after a raid they must pay a $309 fee to the city to have their property declared safe for occupancy and another $200 to reconnect the electricity and gas.
But many landlords are angry with the policy because police have done little to arrest the bad tenants who set up the growing operations in the first place.
``They couldn't catch the criminals, so they catch the landlord,'' said Daniel Yung, whose rental property at 4816 Culloden was raided by Grow Busters in early August.
While the Vancouver drug squad still conducts some marijuana investigations, Grow Busters has become the department's primary growing-operation fighting tool.
A review of search warrant documents by The Sun suggests at least three-quarters of all growing operation raids in Vancouver are now conducted by Grow Busters -- sometimes as many as a 10 raids a week.
But while Grow Busters conducts only brief investigations to gain a warrant, the drug squad routinely uses tools like surveillance to try to determine who is behind the growing operations.
Because they are building a criminal case, the drug squad seizes most equipment from the growing operations it raids -- documents, fans, mechanical timers and pumps.
Grow Busters, in contrast, has no intention of building a criminal case. As a result, it usually only takes two things from the houses it raids: marijuana plants and high-intensity lamps ( which are a fire hazard ).
That leaves much of the marijuana-growing machinery still in place -- in some cases allowing brazen criminals to simply relocate.
Julie Yang's rental property at 5349 Chambers was raided by Grow Busters in mid-November. A few days after the police raid, Yang visited the property to find all of the growing operation equipment had been removed.
``The tenant came back and cleaned up after the police had been in,'' Yang said. ``They took their equipment.''
Harrison conceded not seizing the equipment makes such relocations possible.
``I suppose that's a possibility,'' she said. ``Obviously it's not something we want, but we don't have the facilities to store this stuff.''
With such different approaches to dealing with the marijuana problem, how is it determined whether Grow Busters or the drug squad investigates a suspected growing operation?
Harrison said the two units are in constant communication and growing operations believed to be part of a network of several houses are handled by the drug squad.
But aside from those clearcut cases, it is a toss-up.
Until recently, Grow Busters and the drug squad maintained separate anonymous tip lines. In other words, whether a marijuana grower ended up being arrested in Vancouver or not was based largely on which unit got the tip.
``It may mean that it's unfair,'' Harrison said. ``But what can I say? ... That's life. If you go through a red light, whether or not you get a ticket is going to depend on the officer that stops you. ... Discretion is a huge, huge part of police work.''
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake