A Saanich police officer uses a canvas sack to haul marijuana leaves out of a house on Genevieve Road last December. Police say that for several months the house was used purely as a grow-op. Officers seized between 500 and 700 plants in various stages of cultivation.

A Saanich police officer uses a canvas sack to haul marijuana leaves out of a house on Genevieve Road last December. Police say that for several months the house was used purely as a grow-op. Officers seized between 500 and 700 plants in various stages of cultivation.

Victoria’s illegal economy: easy to see, hard to measure

Drug trade dominates Victoria’s illicit economic activity

Last December, Saanich police seized 700 marijuana plants from a nondescript bungalow home in a leafy residential neighbourhood.

As local residents pointed out, every few months the house would belch out great plumes of marijuana smell. For this sizeable commercial operation, it wasn’t so much if it would be busted, but when.

But for the operators, the cash income far outweighed the near certainty the police would eventually boot down the door. Each grow-cycle of two or three months likely brought in about $150,000 in cash, even after expenses.

This goes against the messaging of police agencies and government, but in many cases, crime can pay.

The illegal economy in Greater Victoria – growing and selling drugs, money laundering, thefts and frauds – is anecdotally lucrative and only somewhat dangerous, but extremely difficult to even to estimate. Statistics Canada issued a study of Canada’s underground economy, but omitted illegal activities “due to the difficulty of obtaining reliable source data.”

Police can provide a sense of the scale of the illegal economy, which is dominated by the drug trade – marijuana grow-ops and trafficking in powder cocaine, crack, meth and heroin.

Const. Aaron Stuart, with the Saanich police street crimes unit, estimates his unit busts a couple large scale marijuana grow-ops each month, on the order of 500 to 1,000 plants. A house busted last December with 534 plants produced about 66 pounds of bud each cycle, he says, with each pound going for $1,500 to $2,000.

“Low-balling it at $1,500 a pound, you are looking at $100,125,” Stuart says. As the bud is cut and sold in smaller quantities, the single crop will yield about $300,000, and most grow-ops achieve at least a few cycles before being robbed or busted.

A Simon Fraser University study from 2004 by economics professor Stephen Easton estimated that Vancouver Island hosted about 3,200 grow-ops in the year 2000, generating about $1.3 billion in revenues.

In an interview with Black Press earlier this year, Easton said he suspects that the scope of the grow-op industry hasn’t changed much over the last decade, although like any report on the economics of crime, he cautions that his numbers are akin to an educated guess.

“The technology for grow-ops has gotten better so there’s an increase in supply,” he says. “But the demand has gone down in the U.S. due to the rising Canadian dollar.”

Easton also suggested that the dollar value of the illegal economy is probably less than people suspect, largely due to illicit income quickly being absorbed into spending on legal goods and services. Drug traffickers buy homes, cars and furniture too. “Even the guys doing illegal stuff need to buy hot dogs,” he says.

And those guys buying hot dogs aren’t hard up for cash. Const. Jason Eagles, with the Victoria police Strikeforce Unit, said his team could bust “dial-a-dopers” – mid-level drug traffickers – every day of the week if they had the manpower.

“At any given time we have two or three investigations on the go,” Eagles says. “When we complete one, we roll right into the next. There is enough people in the drug trade to keep us busy.”

“It’s extremely lucrative for guys dealing with powder cocaine,” Stuart notes. “We debriefed one guy who cleared $5,000 per week above his car, house, phone and workers. And that guy was just some joe-blow slinging it and making his own business.”

The downside to all that cash? The lifestyle can be stressful and constantly fraught with violence or inconvenient arrests.

Victoria doesn’t have the level of drug-fuelled violence of Surrey, for instance, but many drug traffickers here have connections to Mainland gangsters.

“You’re always worried about the police kicking down your door or other criminals robbing you,” Stuart says. “You wonder who’s watching you. You have to hide everything you are doing.”

The risk, too, is that once arrested, the Ministry of Justice might look to seize ill-gotten gains through civil forfeiture legislation. If the Civil Forfeiture Office thinks it can prove a drug trafficker’s car, house, boat, jewelry or stacks of cash is the outcome of illegal activity, it can appeal to a civil court to seize those goods.

In six years and 950 cases (including about 95 cases on Vancouver Island), the Civil Forfeiture Office has seized $30 million in assets across the province, and referrals from police increase each year.

In 2011-12 it seized $10.8 million alone, and the province created a less onerous “administrative forfeiture” process to seize goods worth less than $75,000.

“We seize and turn that cash into community grants,” said Lynda Cavanaugh, an assistant deputy minister with the Ministry of Justice. “It’s a creative way to show that crime doesn’t pay.”

If fellow criminals, police agencies and the Ministry of Justice can’t cut into a trafficker’s income, the taxman just might. Income, from legal and illegal sources alike, must be declared to the Canada Revenue Agency.

The CRA’s special enforcement program investigated more than 3,300 people in 2010-11 suspected of not paying taxes on income derived from illegal sources.

“Bottom line is, taxpayers have to report all income,” says Dave Morgan, who speaks for the CRA in Vancouver.

editor@saanichnews.com

 

 

 

 

 

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

FILE – Oshawa Generals forward Anthony Cirelli, left, shoots and scores his team’s first goal against Kelowna Rockets goalie Jackson Whistle during second period action at the Memorial Cup final in Quebec City on Sunday, May 31, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot
B.C. government approves plan in principle to allow WHL to resume in the province

League includes Kamloops Blazers, Kelowna Rockets, Prince George Cougars, Vancouver Giants, Victoria Royals

Saanich Coun. Susan Brice and Mayor Fred Haynes are calling on the province to develop new solutions for emergency response to mental health crises with the consideration of a potential new 911 category. (Devon Bidal/News Staff)
Saanich mayor, councillor call for new solutions to mental health emergencies

Shifting response from police to trained mental health team the best option, mayor says

A COVID-19 vaccination clinic, operated by Island Health, has opened at the University of Victoria’s McKinnon Gym. (Photo courtesy of UVic)
COVID-19 vaccination clinic opens at University of Victoria

Clinic is staffed and operated by Island Health

Robert Schram, here seen in January 2016, died Saturday, according to a friend. (Black Press Media file photo)
Sidney, Saanich Peninsula mourn the death of Mr. Beads

Bead artist Robert Schram was a familiar, well-loved figure in Sidney and beyond

BC Housing ensures that by March 31, shelter will be available to all people living outside. (Black Press Media file photo)
All unhoused Victoria residents will be offered shelter by March 31, says BC Housing

BC Housing working to secure shelter locations in coming weeks

Langley resident Carrie MacKay shared a video showing how stairs are a challenge after spending weeks in hospital battling COVID-19 (Special to Langley Advance Times)
VIDEO: Stairs a challenge for B.C. woman who chronicled COVID-19 battle

‘I can now walk for six (to) 10 minutes a day’

A copy of the book “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” by Dr. Seuss, rests in a chair, Monday, March 1, 2021, in Walpole, Mass. Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the business that preserves and protects the author and illustrator’s legacy, announced on his birthday, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, that it would cease publication of several children’s titles including “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” and “If I Ran the Zoo,” because of insensitive and racist imagery. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
6 Dr. Seuss books won’t be published for racist images

Books affected include McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super! and The Cat’s Quizzer

The fundraising effort to purchase 40 hectares west of Cottonwood Lake announced its success this week. Photo: Submitted
Nelson society raises $400K to save regional park from logging project

The Nelson community group has raised $400,000 to purchase 40 hectares of forest

AstraZeneca’s vaccine ready for use at the vaccination centre in Apolda, Germany, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Michael Reichel/dpa via AP
National panel advises against using Oxford-AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine on seniors

NACI panel said vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are preferred for seniors ‘due to suggested superior efficacy’

A public health order has extended the types of health care professionals who can give the COVID-19 vaccine. (Photo courtesy of CHI Franciscan)
‘It’s great that midwives are included’ in rollout of B.C.’s COVID vaccine plan, says college

The order will help the province staff the mass vaccination clinics planned for April

Shipping containers are seen at the Fairview Cove Container Terminal in Halifax on Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Canadian economy contracted 5.4 per cent in 2020, worst year on record

Drop was largely due to shutdowns in the spring as COVID began to spread

The Nanaimo Clippers in action at Frank Crane Arena in early 2020. (News Bulletin file photo)
Nanaimo Clippers for sale, owner says hockey won’t be back to normal any time soon

Wes Mussio says he’s had numerous inquiries about the junior A club already

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s coronavirus situation, May 8, 2020. (B.C. government photo)
B.C.’s weekend COVID-19 cases: 532 Saturday, 508 Sunday, 438 Monday

Fraser Health still has most, eight more coronavirus deaths

B.C. Attorney General David Eby speaks in the legislature, Dec. 7, 2020. Eby was given responsibility for housing after the October 2020 provincial election. (Hansard TV)
B.C. extends COVID-19 rent freeze again, to the end of 2021

‘Renoviction’ rules tightened, rent capped to inflation in 2022

Most Read