Cannabis Culture has received reports from growers throughout North America, but especially in British Columbia, about gangs of thieves who invade grow rooms to steal crops and terrorize growers. And of course, we also receive reports about police actions against those who grow herb.
This article is intended to help the marijuana culture protect itself against police, thieves and violence. It contains information provided by marijuana growers and security experts, as well as insider details of police investigations conducted against alleged marijuana growers, wholesalers and retailers in the US and Canada. In some cases, these details are part of records that government agents tried to keep secret by court order.
The police and the thieves don't want you to know how they operate against you. But after you read this article, you will know.
Your cell leads to a cell
Cellular telephones are dangerous ? and not just because they distract drivers and might cause brain cancer: police easily use cellular phones as tracking devices. They can also listen to your conversations via cell phones in your possession, whether or not you have the phone on, even if you are not making a phone call.
In some locales, cell phone calls are generically logged, and in some cases recorded, by a central database available to law enforcement.
According to a grower named Tony who is facing a multi-count indictment in the US, cell phones should not be used or carried by people involved in the marijuana business.
"And if you have to have a cell phone, take the batteries out of them whenever you have a business conversation or are going to a business meeting or grow house," he advised. "People guess that police might listen in on cell conversations. That's true. What they don't know is that police can listen in on any conversation you have when a cell is in the same room as the conversation."
Police bugging devices and tactics are far more sophisticated than what you see in spy movies and televised police dramas.
In cases we reviewed, police physically kidnapped cars from parking lots (using helicopters to lift them in one case), took them to a police facility, outfitted them with surveillance devices, and then brought them back.
"We knew our car had been yanked and returned because they brought it back to the same space number as we had left it in, but on a different level of the parking garage ? the idiots," one marijuana defendant reported.
The defendant, now facing seven years in prison for growing and trafficking marijuana, brought the car to an espionage expert, who "swept" the vehicle.
"He found bugs in the outside mirrors," the defendant said. "That's so the police can listen to your conversations when you are outside the car and have stepped away from it. They had a global positioning system device wired in near the tranny. They had a bug wired into the stereo. The bugs were about the size of a pea."
Police surveillance crews use helicopters equipped with infrared radar, military night-vision goggles, scopes and miniature cameras for visual surveillance. They use parabolic reflectors, directional microphones, remote sensors, and computerized sound-enhancement devices to gather audio material.
Listening devices are so sophisticated that they can hear through walls, even from remote distances, and can also hear through "white-noise" devices used to mask conversations. Recordings can be digitally filtered and enhanced so that background noise and other extraneous material are eliminated. Infrared radars, both hand-held and in helicopters, allow police to "see through" walls, roofs, and insulation to detect heat generated by marijuana grow lights.
Electronic surveillance operations can be conducted by teams or individuals. They can be conducted from vehicles, buildings and outdoors. They can be conducted without human personnel present anywhere near the target site.
Computers usually cannot be 100% protected against police penetration, and are a crucial source of information police use against marijuana defendants.
Even if computer users install firewalls, use encryption, delete files, or otherwise seek to cleanse their computers and steel them against outside invaders, police can still break into computers to seize deleted data, non-deleted data, and to plant remote monitoring devices or programs in the machines. Police can monitor internet communications, electronic fund transfers, downloads, and any other activities on the computer, including spreadsheets and word processing.
In the US, the Patriot Act and other recently-enacted laws allow police to secretly enter people's homes to tamper with their computers. One of the most common tricks police use is a "keystroke program" that stores or sends information every time a person hits a key on their keyboard.
The Internet is a vector for remote penetration. Law enforcement agents can get past the strongest routers and firewalls to plant surveillance viruses, programs and other software in computers. These tactics are used to transmit data directly to remote servers in real time, to preserve and monitor stored data, and in some cases, to plant incriminating data.
Emails are easily monitored. All emails are run through quasi-government programs that search for keywords such as "marijuana." Target emails are forwarded to surveillance units. There are no encryption programs, servers, or firewalls that can totally prevent capture and decoding by police agencies. All emails are fair game. Likewise for any information, "deleted" or otherwise. Law enforcement agencies can often recover data from hard drives, even if the drives have been "wiped" by specialists or physically destroyed.
Computers are a major source of incriminating information; there is no sure way to use them 100% safely if they are used to discuss, store or otherwise handle data relating to marijuana.
When a Canadian grower named Raul got hold of the surveillance reports compiled by police during their year-long investigation of him, he found that he had literally been surrounded by narks and infiltrators for a long time.
"The report showed they had an army of people following us around when we had business meetings," Raul told Cannabis Culture. "Like when we were at the restaurant, there would be old ladies sitting near us, and nobody would have suspected they were cops, but those fuckers were listening to us and reporting what we said. In the transcripts, they had our conversations just like we said them, as well as what we ordered to eat."
Raul explained that police also employ a tactic called "cold penetration." This occurs when police send an informant into a suspect's life.
"One of my colleagues had this happen," Raul explained. "The police were interested in him, so they set up an elaborate sting where they gave him a free vacation. They put an informant in the hotel room next to him, the informant 'befriended' him, got him involved in a smuggling operation, and then he got busted."
Documents from various cases indicate that police often place strangers in the lives of suspects, in some cases using sexual favors, drugs, entrapment and other inducements to cause people to trust informants as friends, business partners, or lovers.
"It is not the same as what most people think, that they are already involved with somebody, and then the person gets busted, and turns on them," Raul explained. "It's that the cops put somebody into your life cold, like a new contact, and their whole purpose is to bust you."
And if police are as interested in you as they are in Raul, they might follow you when you are walking around or in a vehicle.
According to Sylvia, who was trailed for three months by federal authorities who suspected her of trafficking medical marijuana across state lines, police "moving surveillance" does not happen exactly like it is portrayed in the media.
"They don't keep one car right behind you," she says. "They have several cars, and they stay back several lengths, or they stay on the side of you, or they come at you from the opposite direction in a circle. It is not like you will see one car behind you and it's there no matter what you do, so you know it's the police so you can get away. The same thing happens when you are walking. They are going to have different people around you. You have to have a good memory, and a lot of calmness, to determine if you are being followed and who is doing it."
In the drug war, police are thieves who steal plants, property and freedom. But police aren't the only people stealing from the cannabis culture.
Consider the case of Dan, who was running a 100-light grow operation in a converted barn in British Columbia. Until harvest time, the only people who knew about Dan's 2,000-plant garden were him, his girlfriend, and one assistant.
"But the weak point in security for any serious grow is at harvesting time," Dan explains, "because you have to hire clippers to come in and help you harvest quickly. There's no way that the three of us who ran the grow could have harvested all that bud by ourselves. So we asked a trusted friend to get us a clip crew, and we took every precaution, but it didn't work."
Three days before the clip crew was scheduled to harvest the grow room, a gang of seven men wearing balaclavas crowbarred their way into the grow barn in the middle of the night.
"We had a security guard on duty," Dan said. "They jumped him, tied him up, duct taped his mouth and eyes, and told him if he looked at them, or tried to do anything, they would kill him. It took them about two hours to cut our plants, throw them in garbage bags, and leave. They left the guard on the floor."
Unfortunately, Dan's experience is not unique. In the Vancouver area, where some say every fifth house has a grow op in it, there are reports of dozens of growers who have been ripped off by gangs using similar tactics.
"We've analyzed it and agonized over it with other victims," Dan said. "In some cases, it's off-duty police officers who, instead of busting your grow, come in and rip it. Or it can be landlords, real estate agents, anybody who has a key to your location. We've also heard that people from the electricity company are using meter readings or electricity theft sightings to pinpoint where grows are, and they are doing the ripping. We know the thieves are walking around neighborhoods in Surrey [a Canadian city near Vancouver, BC] with drug-sniffing dogs, identifying grow rooms for later invasion."
Police and judges in the Vancouver area appear to be sending an ominous message to growers: don't expect us to protect you from robbers.
One case that typifies this involves the murder of Vi So Hoang, a 41-year-old Vietnamese man who was caretaking a grow operation in 2002 when he returned home to find four youths ripping off his grow house.
The youths fled, but returned later on and beat Hoang to death. When the youths, aged 17-20, were convicted of manslaughter, second-degree murder, robbery and other charges, the judge gave them sentences ranging from house arrest to only six months in jail.
Lenient sentences and lackadaisical law enforcement tactics have encouraged gangs of rippers to terrorize high-grow areas around Vancouver. In many cases, they mistakenly enter houses that don't have grow rooms, but they still rip off or assault residents.
Some grow rip-offs are part of gang warfare between organized crime elements involved in large-scale commercial growing and smuggling. The warfare has racial overtones. Vietnamese growers and Vietnamese grow shop operators are pitted against Hell's Angels and other biker gangs that are predominantly non-Asian. Rip-offs are used to gain turf and hurt the competition, not just to steal weed.
Marijuana gang warfare has resulted in gang members providing tips to police about grow ops run by rivals. Another aspect of the warfare includes wholesale price undercutting. According to my sources, non-Asian commercial Canadian growers like to maintain an average $2300 CDN wholesale price per pound of primo BC bud sold in Canada, and an average wholesale price of $3300 US for BC bud once it has been smuggled south of the border. Insiders say Asian gangs are deliberately undercutting the higher US wholesale price by selling BC bud in the US for approximately $2600 US.
The price wars are affecting quality control. A grow shop owner admitted to one of the reliable sources for this article that many commercial growers are using industrial agriculture techniques that include dangerous herbicides and pesticides.
"It's all about yield and profits," the grow shop owner said. "These guys are not going to let mites or molds take away their crop. They're spraying poison on crops right up to harvest time. There's no way you can tell me that shit is safe to smoke. It's sickening. These guys are in it for the money, not to get somebody safely stoned."
Police in the town of Surrey aren't protecting growers from robbers, but they are robbing growers themselves. The city recently set up a marijuana eradication team comprised of 20 Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers.
"We have a comprehensive approach to busting marijuana operations," explained Surrey Constable Tim Shields. "Everyone in the community ? kids, construction workers, realtors, BC Hydro, homebuilders, and police ? are on the lookout for grow houses."
Shields says police and media are educating the general public about detecting and reporting grow houses. According to Shields, the following conditions are indicative of marijuana grow operations:
? Coverings on windows, especially reflective coverings.
? Condensation on windows.
? Bars on windows and doors.
? The odor of marijuana, especially a "skunky" odor, emanating from the house.
? A lack of snow, dew and frost on roofs in areas where most roofs have that on them at the time.
? A lack of "normal" domestic social activity at the house; failure of house occupants to "integrate themselves into neighborhood"; house occupants who appear secretive and act as if they have something to hide.
? Young, long-haired visitors, and visitors who carry industrial equipment, large quantities of gardening supplies, and large bags and packages into or out of house.
? Bright lights seen through cracks in windows or under doors; generator noise.
? "Unusually" professional fencing, guard dogs, and security-surveillance apparatus.
? Unkempt lawns and house exterior; ugly cars; mail piling up in mailbox.
? The windows are always covered up, sometimes with makeshift covers such as bed sheets.
? Bright light can be seen around the edges of window coverings.
? Ventilation equipment can be seen or heard.
? Residents only stay in the building for short periods of time.
? Equipment and garbage bags are regularly carried in and out, particularly fans, lights and soil.
? Electricity meters have been tampered with or consumption is unusually high.
According to Officer Shields, police in Canada have adopted a tactic from the US, called "asset forfeiture." This means police seize homes, cars, cash, stereos and other assets, without even having to show that they were purchased with "drug money."
Canadian police are also adopting other tactics long used in the US ? they are offering reward money to people who nark out their neighbors, and they are enlisting civilians to do their work for them.
One Landlord Association released a warning to its members to be on the lookout for prospective tenants who match the following list:
They offer to pay the rent and deposit in cash. They are willing to pay more than market value. They give vague or incomplete answers on their rental application. They bill their utilities under a different name. They have no home phone number and give only a cell phone number. They are not interested in the layout of the home or apartment, how many bedrooms it has, etc. They are very interested in the electrical service.
Police encourage landlords, churches, bankers, teachers, real estate agents, repairmen, delivery drivers, and other groups or people with access to the inner workings of homes or lives, to snoop around and call police if they suspect someone of being involved in the marijuana industry.
By now, it should be obvious that police, rip-offs and narks know how to cause big trouble for members of the marijuana culture. So how does a member of the culture, especially someone involved in growing and selling marijuana, protect themselves against bad people? Here are some countermeasures:
You should never mention anything illegal when you are communicating electronically or in places where you can be overheard, but it is not good enough to merely mask your communications with coded phrases such as "How many pounds of tomatoes can you deliver?" Indeed, police and judges interpret such phrases as obvious codes that are meant to hide criminal acts and intent, even if you really are talking about tomatoes, and they use those phrases as justifications for search warrants.
Use a document shredder on incriminating documents. Burn trash or remove the shreds and dispose of them offsite.
Take all batteries out of your cell phones whenever you have sensitive discussions or go to grow houses or other locations that you don't want police to know about.
Employ a trusted counterespionage expert to inspect your business, computer and car. Use non-telephone communications devices, like the "Blackberry" handheld.
Launder your grow profits safely; bankers and police are watching for large cash transactions and deposits.
Make sure any car you use is mechanically sound, looks good, and contains current registration and licensing. Obey all traffic laws. Don't smoke pot while driving. Make sure your grow house doesn't look or smell like a grow house.
The best strategy is to never do anything that would cause police to pay attention to you ? that way, you won't have to worry so much about the success or failure of your countermeasures!
? For computer protection, try using Zone Alarm: www.web-deals.net/zonealarm_pro.htm.
? For encrypted computer communications protection: www.pgpi.org/products/pgp/versions/freeware
? For fighting bugs, wiretaps and surveillance: www.spyshop.nl/info/shop_en.htm www.advanced-intelligence.com/counter.html www.spytechs.com/bug_sweep_equip/default.htm
For further reading:
? The Professional Paranoid, by Michael Sweeney. www.proparanoid.com
? How to be Invisible, by J.J. Luna. www.howtobeinvisible.com
? Secrets of Surveillance, and Surveillance Countermeasures, by ACM IV Security Services
? Guide to Electronic Surveillance Devices, by Carl J. Bergquist
? Bulletproof Privacy, by Kenneth W. Royce
? You & The Police, by Kenneth W. Royce