Police have seized 75,000 marijuana plants in the Cariboo since a dedicated task force was established six months ago, but no one has yet gone before the courts.
Federal RCMP spokesman Const. Michael McLaughlin said police have recommended charges against 36 people, who have all been released on promises to appear, but the Crown has yet to approve charges against any of them.
“When you’re dealing with sophisticated investigations, this is something that is standard procedure for us,” McLaughlin said Tuesday at a press conference in Prince George.
“When you’re talking about the scale of these operations, a lot of investigators have to gather a lot of evidence, and we’ve got to meet that beyond-reasonable-doubt proof in court. So you know we’re going to make darn sure we have very solid charges.”
The Cariboo Regional Integrated Marijuana Enforcement Task Force was launched in September 2010 after a public outcry about increased numbers of suspected pot growers and traffickers in the area.
“After the six-month mark, we can definitively say that the people of the Cariboo are absolutely right. There is a problem, we are investigating and we’re going to continue to do so,” said McLaughlin, who urged the public to continue reporting suspicious activity.
RCMP North District commander Barry Clark said the “vast majority” of people arrested in connection with the grow-ops hail from the Lower Mainland. And, more alarmingly, “a large percentage of these accused are being investigated for potential ties to Asian-based and other organized crime groups.”
Clark said growers are attracted to the Cariboo by its sparse population and relatively cheap land, on which they place “purpose-built” grow structures and leave behind “toxic ponds” filled with herbicides, diesel fuel and other chemicals used in their operations.
Cariboo North MLA Bob Simpson said he will lobby the provincial government to establish a civilian remediation team to clean up the toxic grow-ops, “then figure out the jurisdictional issues, figure out the back charges from there.”
Simpson also said he would work with all levels of government to ensure the continued operation of the task force, which is currently only funded through September 2011.
“I think it would be foolish of us to signal to organized crime, particularly these Asian gangs, that the Cariboo is open for business again,” Simpson said.
CRIME, staffed by between 15 and 25 dedicated RCMP officers, is funded by an arrangement between municipalities from 100 Mile House to Prince George and the federal and provincial governments. McLaughlin would not say what the operation has cost to date, because its investigations are ongoing.
“At this point, we absolutely would not jeopardize a criminal trial by releasing things like cost,” he said.
Meanwhile, criminologist Darryl Plecas, who also spoke at Tuesday’s press conference, said his statistics show the grow-ops taken down by CRIME boasted an average of 1,100 plants (the largest, near Williams Lake, had 8,600) and could be expected to produce annual crops valued at $500,000.
Plecas studies crime as the RCMP research chair at the University of the Fraser Valley. He said Cariboo grow-ops have increased in number and size by five times since the late-1990s, with disproportionate consequences in the courts.
“People are growing five times as much product, clearly in the range of where it’s hard to imagine they could not have organized crime connections… (and) we’re still giving people sentences as if they were mom-and-pop operations,” Plecas said. “It’s mind boggling.”