Health Canada's medical pot permit loophole fuelling illegal grow-ops, say OPP

After raiding dozens of illegal cannabis grow-ops in recent months, the Ontario Provincial Police say Health Canada has a loophole in its cannabis production registration system, and that's fuelling criminal activity.

'If there's a loophole, they will exploit it,' says OPP official about organized crime groups

OPP raided this sprawling complex of greenhouses on Whitmore Road in Rideau Lakes Township in late September, and seized some 2,000 plants. OPP say Health Canada has a loophole in its medical cannabis registration system and that's fuelling criminal activity. (Stu Mills/CBC)

After raiding dozens of illegal cannabis grow-ops in recent months, the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) say Health Canada has a loophole in its medical cannabis registration system that's fuelling criminal activity.

Between July and October, OPP seized about 122,000 cannabis plants worth more than $143 million, more than $75,000 in cash, 36 firearms and about half a million in proceeds from crime. OPP said 195 people were arrested. A significant portion of those arrests were spread across rural eastern Ontario near Ottawa, CBC News found.

Not all of the 52 search warrants police conducted are linked, said Jim Walker, detective inspector with OPP's organized crime enforcement bureau.

"But it does show and speak to the size and scope [of] the illegal production sites, and they are all around the province right now," said Walker.

Walker said while some didn't have registration certificates, a vast majority of those operations were operating under Health Canada's registration system to produce cannabis for medical purposes.

There is a lack of oversight from Health Canada as far as inspecting.- Jim Walker, OPP detective inspector

"What that means is that they've got authorization from Health Canada to grow a certain amount of cannabis," explained Walker. "In most of these cases, they're growing well over what they're allotted." 

Walker said organized crime groups have turned properties into large-scale illegal cannabis production sites.

A photo of a cannabis grow-op that was raided on Whitmore Road in Rideau Lakes Township in late September. (Stu Mills/CBC)

"What we've seen is because there is a lack of oversight from Health Canada as far as inspecting, they have huge registrations. So some of these registrations we're seeing [are] in excess of 400 plants being authorized for one individual [under one property]."

Health Canada's medical cannabis plant calculator says for patients who are authorized 50 grams a day by a health-care practitioner, about 244 indoor plants or 95 outdoor plants are permitted. That number of permitted plants can grow as the authorized grams are higher.

Walker said criminals are exploiting nuances of the regulations to maximize their plant count and diverting it into the illegal market.

"If there's a loophole, they will exploit it. They've done that in a majority of these cases," said Walker. 

Migrant workers hired to tend operations

Walker added that in the vast majority of cases OPP is seeing, the registrants — who are supposed to tend the plants — are not even on site.

"Migrant workers are being hired to tend these large scale operations," he said. 

He said OPP has arrested some of the workers, depending on their involvement. But he said his organized crime enforcement bureau's goal is "going after the people who are responsible." 

Walker said OPP are working with Health Canada on looking at these issues. 

Health Canada may inspect sites


Health Canada did not directly respond to CBC's question about what it's doing about the apparent loophole in its registration system that criminal groups are exploiting.

Spokesperson Tammy Jarbeau said in an email the department takes "appropriate action," like revoking or refusing cannabis production registrations, when it's made aware of illegal activities.

Sometimes, department officials will enforce rules, she said.

"The department has a range of enforcement tools at its disposal," Jarbeau said. That includes sending compliance letters with legal reminders, or sending a notice of intent to cancel a registration. Health Canada may also conduct an inspection of the registered individual's site, she added. 

"Generally, inspections of registered individuals or designated producers are conducted at sites that may pose a higher risk, such as those with a high number of plants or multiple registrations." 

Jarbeau said the department reviews all applications to make sure it meets requirements, and it refuses to issue a certificate where it's likely to risk public health or safety.

She said about 10 per cent of patients grow their own medical cannabis, or have someone designated to grow it on their behalf.

With files from CBC's Trevor Pritchard

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