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Killer Weed: Marijuana Grow Ops, Media, and Justice

By Susan C. Boyd and Connie Carter
Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press. 2014.

The authors use the time-honoured research technique of content analysis to study 15 years (1995-2009) of newspaper articles, pictures and headlines to determine how the image of marijuana grow operations (grow-ops) has been “framed” by the media. The newspapers included the Vancouver Sun, Province, Globe and Mail, and Times Columnist. Particular attention was given to the Vancouver area since it is known as the “pot capital of Canada.” The authors’ analysis of 2524 articles found three themes about marijuana production emerged in all papers: (1) it is a threat to public safety; (2) it threatens otherwise safe communities; and, (3) it is associated with particular criminal types and organizations. The authors note that, while public opinion in B.C. is in favour of decriminalization/legalization of marijuana, marijuana-related charges doubled in B.C. from 2005-2011, led by the RCMP.

The authors examine the work of a major supporter of getting tough on grow-ops, Dr. Darryl Plecas, a Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at University of Fraser Valley, who authored/co-authored several of the RCMP reports used to justify harsher penalties and a get-tough approach on marijuana grow ops. Plecas was the RCMP University Research Chair in Crime Reduction at Fraser Valley. Boyd and Carter note that these studies are not peer reviewed or published as per normal practices of academic research, but are nonetheless widely cited by law enforcement and others promoting a get-tough approach as authoritative/valid evidence of the harms of grow-ops. But the authors of this book show certain of these reports lack scientific rigor and that faulty methods of research play a role in misleading readers. However flawed, these reports were widely cited and acknowledged as providing the real facts about marijuana grow-ops. Ironically, the RCMP funded/supported reports suggest that B.C. emulate the policy of Washington State.

In an interesting review of international literature on marijuana grow-ops, Boyd and Carter contrast scholarly research with the view of the RCMP-supported research. Fortunately for the authors, they were able to obtain a copy of a 2011 Canadian Justice Department report, a study that refutes many of the distortions presented in RCMP-related research and pronouncements. For example, the RCMP, among others, assert that grow-ops are largely run by organized crime, while the Justice study says only 5 % of offenders in court cases concerning grow-ops were affiliated with organized crime. Contraire to the racialized image of grow-ops Boyd and Carter found in the media, the Justice study found most were Caucasian and 94% were Canadian citizens. The report was not released by the government, but obtained through a Request under the Access to Information Act.

In terms of the image of marijuana and grow-ops being frequent sources of violence, the authors note that the use of marijuana does not produce violence. Most violence associated with illegal drugs, including marijuana, is a consequence of the drug being illegal and market/territory issues, the business of drugs, not the physical effect of the drug.

In a chapter entitled “Civil Responses to Marijuana Grow Ops”, the authors provide an excellent overview of how distorted claims on the dangers of marijuana grow-ops have been used to create new punitive strategies outside the formal scope of criminal law. For example, exaggerated claims regarding the fire hazards of grow-ops led to the B.C. Safety Standards Amendment Act (2006) allowing some municipalities to develop programs involving electrical inspections of private residences without a search warrant to detect grow-ops. This effort was led by Surrey and has been said to be a great success. B.C. Hydro has been a willing participant and major source of “information” about marijuana grow ops. The book’s authors note that two RCMP-supported studies by Plecas et al. were widely quoted in the newspapers and used to justify claims of the dangers of marijuana grow-ops. Boyd and Carter point out that the 2005 study report findings do not support the claims made by the authors and RCMP. Using independent data, Boyd and Carter show that the claims are exaggerated.

One program emanating from the civil approach in Surrey discussed by the authors is the Electrical Fire Safety Initiative (FFSI) which began in 2005. This entailed cooperation between police, firefighters, provincial government, BC Safety Authority and municipal electrical inspectors. By analyzing electrical consumption via BC Hydro or through tips to the police, addresses are identified that are “suspect”. Subsequently an investigation of the suspect property and its residents is undertaken. In a 2005 report on the Surrey Pilot program, Fire Chief Len Garis deemed it a success. Based on the RCMP supported report by Plecas et al., the claim was made that grow-ops are 24 times more likely to catch fire, but as Boyd and Carter again note, the data are insufficient to support the claim. Further exaggerated claims are reportedly made by Chief Garis about the “grave public safety concerns” surrounding marijuana grow ops, such as bobby traps, violence, organized crime, among others. Boyd and Carter do not contend that these issues do not arise, but that they are very much exaggerated out of proportion to their reality.

Finally, the authors cite a 2009 paper by Chief Garis, Pleacas and others which advocates municipalities use civil process and law to address these issues as a public safety concern, not as a criminal concern. The paper encourages others to lobby politicians to support this type of program and “weed” out this new public menace. While the campaign against marijuana grow-ops was working in some jurisdictions, others were not interested in this thinly veiled attempt to enforce criminal drug laws and some challenged it for its possible infringement on Charter Rights. Boyd and Carter cite the case of Arkinstall v. City of Surrey as one of the first challenges to this new civil approach to controlling marijuana. The BC Court of Appeal found in 2010 that the inspection, although conducted under the guise of civil/regulatory law, infringes Section 8 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. A couple and their child had their hydro turned off because they refused to comply with the intrusion into their privacy and had to relocate to a hotel. It was disclosed in the case that BC Hydro had forwarded electrical consumption records of over 6000 Surrey properties to authorities, with 1000 flagged for inspection. The property owner is billed for the inspection! A recent challenge to a similar process in Mission has been launched by several residents with the support of the BC Civil Liberties Union.

In a provocative chapter entitled “Using Children to Promote Increased Regulation”, Boyd and Carter detail how media representations of children in grow-ops present images of children harmed by the thoughtless, criminal and greedy actions of their parents. This includes harm from mould, carbon monoxide, pesticides, carbon dioxide, ozone exposure and electrocution. They cite an article entitled “Mounties Want Parents Punished for Raising Kids in Grow Ops”, stating that 20% of grow-ops raided by police have children. Further support of putting children into government care is found in a quote from police-researcher Plecas saying that stiff jail sentences will act as a deterrent.

In their last chapter, the authors address alternative perspectives. They start out by quoting Canadian drug expert Bruce Alexander: “The biggest cost of the drug war propaganda may be the systematic reduction in people’s ability to think intelligently about drugs.” There are other options, including harm reduction strategies, which try to minimize the negative (stigmatizing) effects of not only drug use, but of drug policy. This approach takes more of a treatment/medical approach with services provided and the recognition that drugs will be with us and cannot be eliminated through a criminal/punitive approach. The authors contrast Surrey’s approach, discussed above, with Vancouver’s city strategy of harm reduction with legal injection sites, provision of multiple services to addicts and less reliance on criminal law, particularly regarding marijuana. The authors have provided an excellent analysis of how images of marijuana grow-ops have been framed by media based on inaccurate information flows from RCMP-related research and reports and maintained and used to create new punitive strategies that fall outside the formal scope of criminal law that fall outside the formal scope of criminal law.

Professor of Law and Justice
Central Washington University

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