In Canada, Marijuana Grows Like, Well, a Weed

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Some would call marijuana British Columbia's largest export to the United States. The border patrol and local sheriffs have recently stumbled across massive shipments in cars, trucks — even a kayak. And now the Canadian government is considering whether to decriminalize recreational use of the drug.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Canada is experiencing a boom in the marijuana-growing business. Police in some parts of the country say they can't keep up with all the reports of illegal pot-growing operations. Growth in the drug business has been so fast that it has frightened some Canadians. And as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, they're having second thoughts about their government's permissive attitudes toward pot.

MARTIN KASTE reporting:

It is technically against the law in Canada to light up a joint...

(Soundbite of a lighter clicking)

KASTE: ...but you wouldn't know it watching the scene here at the New Amsterdam Cafe in downtown Vancouver.

Mr. ANDREW MARTIN (Marijuana User): It's insane. It's off the wall. OK?

KASTE: Andrew Martin, a friendly guy with Chinese characters tattooed on his neck, is sharing a midmorning toke with a couple of new friends, tourists from California. He says the Americans are invariably impressed by British Columbia marijuana, also known as BC bud.

Mr. MARTIN: We get, like, some of the best weed in the world here for, like, one-third the price you get it. And these guys are telling me they pay, like, $60 American for what we pay $30 Canadian.

KASTE: There's nothing underground about this cafe. It's an upscale establishment that sells pastries and sandwiches along with the pot paraphernalia. The manager, Kelsey Parks, has no fear of the police arresting her customers for possession. She's more worried about running afoul of the city's strict rules against secondhand smoke.

Ms. KELSEY PARKS (Manager, New Amsterdam Cafe): During the day, everybody must do all smoking in the smoke room, and that's pretty much how we're able to keep our business going is because we provide a ventilated area for people to consume.

KASTE: It's true that police in Vancouver rarely arrest anyone for smoking marijuana. Nevertheless, there is a drug war going on.

(Soundbite of crashing noises)

KASTE: The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have just raided this house in a subdivision of Surrey, a Vancouver suburb. The Mounties are loading a van with thousand-watt grow lamps and other confiscated equipment. This house is what Canadians call a grow operation, or grow-op for short. In the last couple of years, police have busted nine houses in this neighborhood alone. Jennifer Patapof(ph) stands on her front porch watching the Mounties raiding the house next door. She says grow-ops set up in prosperous neighborhoods such as this one in an attempt to blend in, but she says she can always tell who's running a secret hot house.

Ms. JENNIFER PATAPOF: At Christmastime this year when we had snow in December, every single home had snow on the roof except for this house.

KASTE: Patapof says she's considered relocating, but the grow-ops have become so widespread that she's afraid she'll just find herself moving in next to another one.

Inspector Paul Nadeau is the new head of the Mounties' Vancouver drug section.

Inspector PAUL NADEAU (Head of Vancouver Drug Section): If you go back five, six years, the police in British Columbia used to have about 1,500 grow-ops reported to them every year. Since then, we get roughly 4,500 to 5,000 reported to us every year.

KASTE: British Columbia's cottage industry in marijuana is estimated to be worth at least $2 billion a year, much of that controlled by Vietnamese criminal gangs. Vancouver is an especially good location for this export-oriented business. It's only half an hour from the border and the Interstate 5 corridor that leads to the rich California market. When border security gets too tight, smugglers just carry the pot through the woods. Sometimes they even paddle down to Washington state in kayaks. Inspector Nadeau says it's easy to understand why growers like Canada.

Inspector NADEAU: You're talking about a very insignificant type of sentencing and really no deterrent whatsoever. We're starting to see a bit of a turn in the last few weeks, actually. I was talking to the Department of Justice, and we've actually got two or three cases where we have first-time growers being sentenced to, you know, six months in jail, which is a shock to us.

KASTE: The Canadian government is now proposing much stiffer sentences for growers, but at the same time, the government is also planning to decriminalize the possession of small amounts. Some Canadians see this as a fundamental contradiction in the country's drugs policy. Inspector Nadeau calls is `sucking and blowing at the same time.' It's an opinion shared by the mayor of Vancouver, Larry Campbell, who calls it a mixed message.

Mayor LARRY CAMPBELL (Vancouver, British Columbia): To little Johnny, it's not that big a deal to smoke marijuana. And to the grower, `All right. This is great. Now we can really start pumping it out,' because those people who weren't trying it originally may just decide to try it.

KASTE: But while the Mounties would resolve the contradiction by keeping possession illegal, Mayor Campbell takes the opposite view. He says the answer is outright legalization of possession and production.

Mayor CAMPBELL: We'll control it. You know, companies will grow marijuana just like companies make alcohol, companies make tobacco.

KASTE: Outright legalization is not quite a mainstream idea in Canada, but the Liberal Party believes there is still broad support for decriminalization, essentially reducing the penalty for possession to the level of a traffic ticket.

This is much to the dismay of US drug czar John P. Walters, who has criticized the plan. But the American drug czar's opinion doesn't count for much in Canadian politics, and the government hopes to bring the matter up for a vote in Parliament later this year. Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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