Think of drugs, and you think of Colombia, Thailand, Afghanistan. But Canada? Nice, peaceful, dull Canada? Believe it or not, there are parts of the country where cannabis provides more jobs than logging, mining, oil and gas combined. Misha Glenny investigates, in the first of two extracts from his new book on organised crime
"Open the back for me, please, Dan." Quiet yet firm -- that's how they speak around Metaline Falls, in the far north of Washington State. Dan Wheeler walked around his pick-up truck and unbolted the tray. "Let's clear away all that stuff, please, Dan." Wheeler started hauling the grubby but neatly piled strips of chromium that were lying on the flatbed. The US customs officer at the border with Canada helped by shifting the snow chains, toolbox, rags, oilcans and the detritus common to an artisan's vehicle.
"I'd like a look at the propane tank, please, Dan." Wheeler skipped under the car to unbolt the thick mesh that shielded the tank -- a mesh that another border official had recommended as protection against an explosion if the truck were back-ended. Stooping deliberately, the customs officer positioned his nose just above the propane tank's outlet valve. A jet of noxious gas flew up and the guard straightened smartly. Then he tapped the fuel gauge, which shimmered gently -- the normal reaction.
"Thank you, Dan. What fuel is the truck running on right now?"
"I'm not sure. Gasoline, I think."
"Switch it over to the propane, please, Dan, and turn on the engine."
Dan switched the fuel supply and started cranking the engine.
Nothing. He tried again. Then again. On the third try, the liquid petroleum gas (also known as LPG or propane) reached the carburettor and the motor burst into life. The officer bent down and breathed in the exhaust from the pipe. He could tell from the fumes that this was propane; it has a very different odour from petrol. He had ascertained what he needed to know: that Dan Wheeler was not smuggling BC bud, one of the most popular and potent brands of cannabis in the world, from Canada into the United States.
These elaborate tests were necessary; the only other way he could have established Dan's innocence would be by sawing open the LPG tank. And the resulting explosion would have blown apart him and everything else within a 500-yard radius.
"OK, Dan. Just come on into the office to fill in the forms and you'll be on your way!"
Wheeler fumed. "Hey, can you at least give me a hand with reloading the car?" The officer turned and grimaced before reluctantly helping.
As he headed away from eastern British Columbia through the spectacular evergreen forest of Colville National Park towards the slush and wooden shacks of Metaline Falls itself, Dan's mood darkened. How many times had he been through that damn border? And how many times did he have to take his whole truck apart? And he knew that they liked him. There weren't many of their regulars who could talk with such authority about the things those boys loved -- guns, hunting and fishing.
"I guess that's why they're so good at their job," Dan thought. He was sincerely impressed by their thoroughness, even though it inconvenienced him most times he travelled.
By the time he arrived at the storage compound in Spokane, Washington State, Dan's spirits had brightened, but he was on alert. After entering the pin code to the main gate, he started unloading the chrome strips into his rental lock-up under the arbitrary gaze of the CCTV cameras. Finally, he drove the truck into the space, closed the door and hooked up his lamp to the cigarette lighter.
"With my toolkit," he later told me, "I dove underneath the truck, careful to place a little blanket underneath so I didn't pick up too much dirt -- it's those little touches that make the difference between professionals like me and the amateurs who will at some point get caught." Removing the mesh, as he had done at the border, Dan then unbolted the propane tank and swung it around 90 degrees.
Telling me the story inside his voluminous garage and workshop, Dan demonstrated the routine with the propane tank. "You can't tell by looking at it, but if you chisel away at the right place with a screwdriver and a hammer, you bust away this glass-fibre body filler, which I use to cover up a socket," Dan explained. He then started to unscrew a small square nut. Pang! "There we go!" he exclaimed with a broad smile. And the end of the tank came off.
There was no mighty explosion. Instead, I saw small-bore copper tubes inside, which ran from the external sniffer valve, gauges and fuel pipe to a small cylinder of propane intended to fire camping stoves.
"The truck actually runs for 15 kilometres on the propane, and of course if anyone checks the sniffer valves or the fuel gauge, everything appears to be normal," said Dan proudly.
When he followed this procedure in the Spokane lockup, the remainder of the tank was stuffed with 50lb of bud from British Columbia -- or God's Country, as the locals call it, in honour of its wealth of natural beauty and resources. "That compound was my hot zone," Dan recalled earnestly. "Even when you've taken every precaution imaginable, you can still hear the squeal of the Feds' tyres in your mind. There was no retreat from the lockup and no possibility of talking your way out of 50lb and $200k in cash."
In British Columbia, Canada's westernmost province, 50lb of bud was worth US$55,000 (about UKP27,500) at wholesale prices. In Spokane, two and a half hours from the border, its value had almost doubled to $100,000. If Dan could be bothered (which he often could), the trip to California added another $50,000 to his haul. If he drove it to Kentucky, he could sell it for $200,000 -- almost four times the value in British Columbia.
The turnover of Dan's business was $100,000 a week with minimal capital outlay. As Stephen Easton of the venerable Simon Fraser Institute in Vancouver has noted, the profits from this trade are seductive even for its most junior participants. "For a modest marijuana growing operation of 100 plants, harvest revenue ... amounts to slightly less than $20,000. With four harvests a year, gross revenue is nearly $80,000. A conservatively high estimate of production cost is about $25,000. The return on invested money is potentially high: around 55%."
For the ordinary folk of western Canada, nothing competes financially. For the pros, like Dan and his buddies, it comes close to being a licence to print money. "I was part of a three-man team," Dan continued. "Marty coordinated all the grow ops to deliver the 50lb per week -- that's no easy job. Much of it came from his own farms, but some smaller ops sold to him, and you have to maintain the quality. This is a highly competitive market and the guys we sold to, they knew their shit real good." Michael, the third partner, coordinated sales in the US. "Look," said Michael, whose laid-back appearance conformed much more to the hippyish stereotype than Dan's just-back-from-felling-an-entire-forest look, "there are a lot of problems -- not just the question of your clients' reliability, but the security issues. God knows how many cellphones we use: we only use 'em for a week or so, then we chuck 'em away. There's a real damn problem remembering all the different phone numbers."
The trio dissolved their partnership in 2005, but while it was in place Dan was in many ways the linchpin of the operation. "The bottle-neck has always been in getting the stuff into the US," Michael explained. "But that's the big market -- there's 30 million Canadians, but everyone in Canada either grows it themselves or has a buddy who does, even in Vancouver or back east. There's close to 300 million Americans, and that's a massive market. Taking it to market, that's the real pro work, and that was Dan's niche."
Marty, Michael and Dan are part of an industry that the British Columbia Organised Crime Agency valued at $4bn in 2001. It is now worth one-third more, according to most estimates, which means it accounts for more than 5% of the province's GDP. Around 100,000 workers are engaged both full time and part time in the cultivation, distribution, smuggling and retail of marijuana, compared with 55,000 working in the traditional sectors of logging, mining, oil and gas combined. Only manufacturing employs more people, and this is all according to official statistics from Canadian law enforcement.
Although British Columbia remains the main producer, the farming of marijuana has been spreading steadily eastwards through Canada over the past 10 years and most provinces now boast a flourishing industry.
The implications of these figures are stark: western Canada is home to the largest per-capita concentration of organised criminal syndicates in the world. In turn, Canada has become one of the biggest law-enforcement headaches anywhere: organised crime has broken out of the ghetto of marginal communities and conquered the middle classes. "In a town like Nelson," says Dan, "I would estimate that about 30% of households are involved in grow-ops of some size or other, but in the Slocan valley, I reckon between half and 70% of the households will be involved."
From atop the reassuring slopes of Elephant Mountain (so called because it resembles a dozing pachyderm) I gaze across the west arm of Kootenay lake at Nelson's rooftops, stacked prettily up a steep green incline. Beyond looms the sharp peak of Silver King, the mountain whose precious metal deposits attracted large numbers of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe at the turn of the 19th century. To this day, this twee settlement resembles the idealised image of small-town America before it was blighted by unregulated advertising hoardings and fast-food joints. Almost every store in Nelson has a picture of its manager or owner with their arms around Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah, in commemoration of the time when the town was indeed transformed into America for the filming of Roxanne, a feeble update of Cyrano de Bergerac. Hollywood likes Nelson: for its unspoilt looks; for its stunning countryside; and because, of an evening, the film crews get to smoke Cuban cigars and fat joints packed with BC bud.
But despite these attractions, Nelson and the surrounding area have been in steady economic decline for a couple of decades. Although its tourist and media industries are growing, these have not yet compensated for the demise of mining and the crises that have afflicted the logging industry. George Bush dealt the most punishing blow to British Columbia's economy in recent years by imposing a 27% tax on imports of Canadian softwood -- since ruled to be an outright violation of America's free-trade responsibilities. The Canadian government calculated that in three years after the tax was imposed in May 2002, some 7,000 jobs were permanently lost in logging, sawmilling and remanufacturing across British Columbia. "Including indirect impacts," it added, "job losses have risen to a reported 14,000. A common myth assumes that these impacts will disappear with a settlement in the softwood dispute and that jobs will come back, but this is not the case."
Many of those who once worked in the traditional industries have been quick to redeploy their skills into producing vast quantities of marijuana, as I discovered on a trip into British Columbia's interior. Three of the four annual harvests are produced exclusively indoors (products of the summer outdoor harvest are often sought after by connoisseurs, but your average consumer can usually be counted on not to give a damn). But the word "indoors" does not quite do justice to the extraordinary installations in which some of the plants are grown.
As our 4x4 embarks on the forest road, I am reminded of the train ride in Friedrich Durrenmatt's dark surrealist novella, The Tunnel. As the train goes deeper into a tunnel, the dank bricks wrap themselves ever tighter around the carriages, forcing the travellers to confront their worst nightmares.
At first, the province's interior is not quite as threatening as Durrenmatt's tunnel -- the leaves are not so dense as to block all the sun as we rush northwards for an hour, maybe two, through the towering evergreens. But eventually the sun is bound to set and there are no cellphone signals here. If the vehicle breaks down, then the living nightmares of British Colombia's infinite interior will appear. Trekking home is out of the question; the terrain is littered with a plant known as the devil's club. These tough stalks, three to four feet tall, are topped by a ball covered in vicious spikes. As you walk through them, the club swings back and rips deep into human flesh. But the great fear is the grizzly bear. The world's most powerful natural predator, the grizzly plays cat-and-mouse with its victim, breaking its bones and its will, then laying it in a shallow grave before returning three days later to munch on the body after it has softened up. Thank God I've come here with a group of professionals.
The three men look, smell and move like loggers, their senses finely attuned to the outback. As well as scanning for signs of grizzlies, they keep their ears open for the distant twitter of helicopter rotors. "Could be game wardens, could be RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police], could be DEA," one mutters. They talk like loggers, too, which is almost never.
I thought it was tough terrain for the 4x4, but when we finally arrive at the clearing that is our destination, I am rendered speechless by the vision of a mustard-coloured industrial digger. How do industrial diggers travel to the middle of nowhere? Even more impressive are the two sea-going containers, each 40ft long, which are sunk into an enormous hole in the forest. Accessible only through a door reached by some makeshift stairs cut into the ground, they are easily covered over with earth if concealment becomes necessary. The containers are humming. Cables lead into the forest. "Proximity to a power cable is an important factor in the location," says Jim, who has rigged up the electric supply. Jim used to work on the dams that have helped to turn the province into one of the world's biggest power suppliers. "Basically, in order to get the power from the main cables, I have to build a series of substations capable of reducing the voltage until we reach the grow-op."
Inside the two sea containers, hundreds upon hundreds of freshly planted cannabis saplings are starting to crane towards the equally numerous halogen lamps. This facility also has a system of CO2 injections, as one of the horticulturalists explains to me. "You are much more in control of the environment if you introduce CO2 at the right time of the day and night. The more CO2 you give 'em, the more they like it -- they grow into fatter, healthier plants. It increases their potency and you can double the yield and beyond."
Of the many things British Columbia has in abundance, space and electricity have been decisive in transforming it into one of the world's great marijuana farms. Space, because the RCMP and the US's Drug Enforcement Agency just cannot find the majority of the largest grow-ops (especially when they are hidden underground in sea containers). "The DEA may have unlimited access to British Columbia," Senator Larry Campbell, the former mayor of Vancouver, told me, "but do you know how many logging trails there are? I mean, you can bring in every Black Hawk helicopter you want. Forget the haystack -- you're looking for a needle in a jungle!" As for electricity, the lamps feeding the cannabis may need huge amounts of power by domestic standards, but by the standards of the province's vast hydroelectric capacity, the usage is negligible.
Back home in the Slocan valley at the end of another tough day, Dan places one of his favourite TV shows in the VCR. "You're going to love this," he says. "This'll show you just how dumb Americans can be!"
CBC's Talking with Americans travels the length and breadth of the US encouraging the locals to give their reactions to fictitious events in contemporary Canada: the opening of the country's first university, perhaps, or its annual abandonment of unproductive pensioners on the ice floes.
"Congratulations, Canada!" a New York woman gushes in all seriousness, "On your first 100 miles of paved highway!"
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