For the workers at Canada's biggest indoor marijuana farm, there was no summer, no winter, and no day or night. Instead, there was the artificial glow of more than a thousand industrial lights, the gurgle of chemicals and mattresses set in windowless concrete rooms. And of course there was the endless task of caring for more than 30,000 high-grade marijuana plants that produced an annual cash crop worth an estimated $100-million.
This was scientific farming taken to the extreme. The workers ate in a makeshift cafeteria and worked shifts that ran around the clock, 365 days a year. The plants were fed a carefully calculated mixture of chemicals that boosted their potency, or THC content. To make sure that the crop matured as quickly as possible, the lights were hooked up to computerized timers. The harvested plants were dried in labelled racks, then vacuum-packed for shipment.
And all of it took place just metres away from one of the busiest highways in Canada.
This is the strange world that police discovered last weekend when they checked out an implausible tip -- that someone had set up a giant marijuana farm inside a closed-down Molson's brewery in Barrie. The tip turned out to be right.
Since early Saturday morning, police have been exploring the biggest indoor marijuana operation ever found in Canada -- a 6,000-square-metre farm equipped with "state of the art" equipment and facilities for as many as 50 workers. Investigators have found themselves staggered by the scale and the audacity of the enterprise.
"To use a retail term, this was what you would call a big-box approach," said Wayne Frechette, Barrie's chief of police services.
"It was not a Mom and Pop operation."
Before the weekend was over, the giant pot bust was virtually the only news in Barrie, a pleasant city of just over 100,000.
"Welcome to what appears to have become the marijuana capital of Huronia," Mr. Frechette said at a heavily attended press conference yesterday. "This is not a title that the city of Barrie takes pride in."
Although police are still investigating, it appears that the marijuana farm was operated by an organized crime syndicate that rented space in the former brewery, which was closed by Molson's in 2000. After the closing, the site was sold to an investment firm that leases space to a number of companies that operate on the site, including a coffee roaster and a trucking firm. Investigators said they're still trying to determine the name of the company that leased the space used for the marijuana farm.
"The ownership is complicated," said Deputy Commissioner Vaughn Collins of the OPP's Organized Crime Unit. "We're still working on that."
Police believe the indoor farm was in operation for at least a year before the weekend raid. The former brewery site provided a near-perfect cover for the marijuana operation, investigators said.
"If you tried to set something like this up in a little village, you'd be noticed right away," said Detective Sergeant Rick Barnum of the OPP's Drug Enforcement Unit. "But in a place like that, there was nothing unusual about trucks coming or going."
The raid on the pot farm resulted in nine arrests. Although police would not elaborate, those arrested appear to be workers who were tending the plants. Police say the operation was backed by organized crime, but say they have no clear answers about who set it up. "We're still working our way toward the top of the organization," Det. Sgt. Barnum said.
The marijuana farm was a self-contained world that occupied almost half of the 11,600-square-metre brewery site. The facility included more than 30,000 marijuana plants, 1,000 high-powered growing lamps, hydroponic trays, an irrigation system and tanks filled with specialized chemicals that were used to boost the potency of the plants. There were also dormitory facilities that could house up to 50 people. Police said the facility was staffed around the clock.
Many of the plants were growing inside giant steel vats that were once used to brew Molson's most popular brands of beer. The vats were six metres wide and 30 metres long, with watertight doors. The vats provided an ideal growing environment, police said, since it was easy to control the humidity and temperature levels inside.
The Barrie marijuana farm is part of a burgeoning national trend that has turned Canada into one of the world's larger exporters of marijuana. According to statistics kept by the U.S. Customs Service, the amount of marijuana seized at the U.S.-Canada border has risen sharply over the past few years. In 1998, border officials seized 369 kilograms of marijuana destined for the United States from Canada. By 2002, the amount had risen to 9,477 kilos.
Deputy Commissioner Collins said indoor marijuana operations have become a $1-billion a year operation in Ontario alone.
"Commercial marijuana facilities have reached epidemic proportions in Ontario," he said. "There are more of them every day. There aren't enough people in Ontario to consume all the marijuana we produce."
Although the rising level of Canadian drug exports to the United States has generated fears of a U.S. backlash, Washington appears supportive -- at least so far -- of police efforts in Canada. John Walters, director of national drug control policy, issued a statement yesterday praising the Barrie raid.
"I applaud the professionalism and persistence of Canadian law-enforcement officers for keeping these thousands of marijuana plants off Canadian and American streets, and away from our young people."
Experts in the field say the boom in the Canadian marijuana industry has been sparked by the comparative leniency of courts in this country when it comes to drug crimes. Police say most people caught growing marijuana in Canada get only a fine. In the United States, the same offence usually draws a jail sentence of three to seven years.
"This is a high-profit, low-risk operation," Deputy Commissioner Collins said. "The profits are huge. The sentence is short. That's what draws people to it."
The Barrie pot farm is simply an extreme example of the indoor marijuana trend, according to investigators. They said the equipment in the facility was worth millions, and included elaborate electrical, irrigation and chemical systems. The facility was designed for the needs of the plants, not the humans who attended to them -- the temperature was "tropical," and the air was pungent with the scent of the chemicals used to stimulate the marijuana's growth rate and THC levels.
"It wasn't a nice place to be," said Det. Sgt. Barnum after touring the facility. "When you come out of there, you feel like taking a long, long shower. Det. Sgt. Barnum said it was "sad" that Barrie had become known as a centre of marijuana production. "It's not what we want to be associated with."