Marijuana Industry Booming in Canada ; Ontario Police Have Seen a 250 Percent Increase in Indoor Pot Operations

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On the street it's called Northern Lights, Ontario Hydro, and B.C. bud. It's one of Canada's biggest agricultural exports - a potent form of marijuana cultivated in sprawling "grow houses," worth an estimated US$4 billion to $7 billion annually. Much of it is smuggled into the US.

Once hidden in farming communities and well-heeled suburbs, grow operations - indoor nurseries with high-tech lighting and temperature controls - have been thrust into the national spotlight. Thursday Canada buried four young Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers who were killed during a bust in rural Alberta March 3.

The Alberta grow house was just one of thousands across Canada. Here in Ontario, police say indoor pot operations have risen 250 percent in the past four years. And Vancouver is home to some 7,000 "grow ops" at any time, police say.

The tragedy - the deadliest incident for Canada's national police force in 120 years - has ignited debate as Canadians begin to question whether liberal attitudes toward marijuana and lenient laws enacted over the past two decades have contributed to the drug boom.

"It's really got people talking about the problem," says Marc Pinault, staff sergeant with the Ottawa Police Service's drug unit. "It's pretty clear that we produce a pile of pot, and it's really good stuff. I don't know that that's something we should be really proud of."

Drugs moving east

British Columbia has long been the hub of sophisticated, high- tech nurseries capable of producing pot with nearly 30 times the kick of what was found on the street a decade ago, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency. Sergeant Pinault says the increasing numbers of massive growing operations - once largely the preserve of Asian gangs and bikers on the West Coast - indicate the problem is moving East into provinces like Ontario and Quebec.

Tom Stamatakis, a Vancouver police officer and a member of the Canadian Professional Police Association, says criminals across the country are modeling their operations after those found in and around Vancouver.

For example, he says, grow houses are increasingly found in upscale areas of the city as criminals ply their trade behind picket fences and a facade of respectability. Inside, they're a hotbed of danger - rigged with booby traps to ward off intruders and noxious chemical compounds that pose serious health threats.

But those aren't the only perils. DEA special agent Rodney Benson of Seattle says recent busts have also netted a pile of automatic weapons and explosive devices.

"We're definitely seeing more violence," explains Mr. Benson, who recently oversaw a year long, cross- border sting called Operation Hockey Bag, in which investigators charged 22 people and seized more than 400 lbs. of marijuana, along with $3.4 million and a dozen firearms. "It's not just weapons - it's what we're seeing from the organization. They rule and intimidate from within."

RCMP investigators are still sifting through the evidence, trying to find out what led to the killing of the four officers last week. …