A B.C. pot grower says he and many others are making thousands of dollars every month growing licensed medical marijuana and selling it for illegal distribution on the streets, and there is little police can do to stop it.
As he descends the steps of his Nelson home, Jack throws a switch and lights up 85 well-tended pot plants. Exhaust fans hum as he tends to his crop.
"This is a three weeks in bud. You can see they got a nice bud on them," says Jack, who CBC agreed to identify only by his first name.
"It's starting to smell nice. Another four weeks and these will be done," he says.
Jack says he has been a pot grower his whole adult life and he’s made a good living at it, comfortably raising a family .
He estimates he gets about $20,000 every two months from his basement operation. With six crops a year, that’s about $120,000 a year.
Jack says he used to grow his pot illegally and sell it on the Prairies, but that was too risky, so he applied to Health Canada for a Personal Use Production licence.
He filled out a few forms and got a doctor to sign off on a medical condition. The whole process took a half hour he recalls.
"All I did with my doctor is send him medical reports from here. I did a Skype interview with my doctor and sent him a credit card number," he says.
It was so easy, in fact, that Jack got a second licence — this one in a relative’s name.
"And why not?" he says, "Everyone is doing it. They are going about the same business. They are just getting a license."
Once the government sanctioned him, they even sent him a permit to transport pot.
But while he’s growing the pot legally, Jack still sells his marijuana to the same middle men he always has and that's how large amounts of medicinal marijuana end up being sold illegally on the streets, police say.
Police handcuffed by licences
Const. Bill Long patrols the streets of Nelson, where marijuana is a huge part of the underground economy.
"It’s a day-to-day thing, a day-to-day challenge for us to deal with," says Long.
Long and other officers say the medical marijuana rules have made their jobs almost impossible, as more and more illegal growers apply for licences.
- 9,369 personal production licences in B.C.
- 2,232 designated growers for others in B.C.
- 18,063 personal production licences in Canada
- 3,405 designated growers for others in Canada
Over 10,000 licences to grow medical marijuana have been issued in B.C. alone, and more than 20,000 across Canada.
Health Canada is supposed to inspect the legal grow-ops, but Long says he’s never seen that happen.
"The follow-up, as far as any door knocks or checks, seems to be lacking and we as police don’t have the authority to do those checks and a lot of them are very aware of that," said Long.
And so people like Jack grow weed with virtual impunity. Some growers pool licences and grow hundreds of plants per crop.
RCMP Cpl. Dennis Blanch says organized crime now recruits people to apply for licences.
"Serious organized crime has found a venue that buffers them from law enforcement. They are actively recruiting people to make applications for marijuana licences. The only area we can catch them in is when they are trafficking in cannabis to non-licensed patients," says Blanch.
System out of control
Don Skogstad, a criminal lawyer who specializes in marijuana cases, says Canada's medical marijuana system has resulted in a stampede no one fully anticipated.
"There was a lot of criticism. It was kind of a hodgepodge. I mean how many medicines can you produce in your own home?" asks Skogstad.
"This idea of growing in your own neighbourhood. That was never well thought. It’s secretive. Local governments don’t know about it — fire hazards, wiring hazards in many cases," he says.
The Conservative government has been told by police, municipal government and individual citizens who say the system has spun wildly out of control.
It vowed again this week to scrap the personal production licences by next spring and go to a system of large, secure grow sites that are federally inspected and run by people with deep pockets.
That would mean no more legal basements grow-ops, but Skogstad says the federal government is finding it hard to change the current system.
"They are way behind on approving the new system. They can’t run out of supply. It’s a constitutionally guarded medicine. So they can’t have a hiatus where there is nothing available. They have not been able to approve big industrial growers so they’ve had to continue with the old system," he says.
Skogstad says the federal government continues to issue licences that run into June of next year, well past the date they said the current system would end.
Longing for the good old days
Meanwhile back in his basement, Jack says he actually misses the days when operations like his were illegal because lately so much so-called "legal weed" has spilled onto the street it’s driven down prices.
He used to get almost $3,000 a pound for his bud when he was growing illegally. Now it’s $1,700 pound and falling. Sometimes there’s so much medical marijuana out there he says some growers can’t unload their product.
"It’s going down the tubes because of all these licences. Three years ago you couldn’t have enough of this. Now I know people who have ten pounds from their last crop because they couldn’t sell it. "
And so Jack pines for the good old days – when what he did was illegal but he made a lot more money doing it.