Real estate agents aren’t the only ones alarmed by the increasing number of quiet, suburban homes being used to grow lucrative crops of high-quality marijuana. No longer solely the concern of law enforcement, the rapid spread of such grow-ops is changing the way agencies from insurers to municipalities do business.
“What originally started as a B.C. problem has spread Canada-wide,” said Dave Way, standards and practices co-ordinator for the Insurance Bureau of Canada. It’s becoming a familiar sequence from coast to coast, says Const. Richard Baylin, RCMP national co-ordinator for marijuana grow-ops: the empty house on the nice suburban street, the quiet new neighbours, the cop cars, the TV crews. Then it’s back to the empty home – this time full of toxic mould from high humidity, its foundation chipped away to get at power lines, its drywall damp and crumbling. As far as grow-ops are concerned, British Columbia, Quebec and Ontario are “the Big Three,” Baylin said.
A March RCMP report estimates the number of Ontario grow-ops grew 250 per cent between 2000 and 2002, a year in which there may have been up to 15,000 of them active in the province. Now they’re showing up in Halifax. Winnipeg has called Baylin’s office for advice. A little over a year ago, seven homes on the same upscale Calgary suburban street were busted. Edmonton has increased the number of police officers working on grow-ops to six from four. Experts offer a variety of reasons for the increase from organized crime exploiting a high-profit enterprise to low prison terms for those caught. But for Canadian business, the bottom line is that it’s starting to affect the bottom line.
Real estate agents, who may unwittingly sell a former grow-op or sell to someone wanting to build one, may have the most at stake. “A realtor is the one stuck in the middle,” says Bob Linney of the Real Estate Association of Canada. Agents are obliged to disclose anything that may affect the integrity of the house, he says. But sellers may not tell their agent everything. As well, a house’s grow-op history may be several buyers in the past. And telling a buyer his or her prospective home used to be a grow-op may be slanderous unless a criminal conviction was actually obtained.
“The realtor walks a very fine line,” Linney says. The B.C. Real Estate Association now includes a clause on its listing form that specifically asks the seller if he knows if the building has been used as a grow-op. The national association now publishes a 24-page book on how to recognize a grow-op house, or spot a possible customer who plans to build one. “If someone’s more interested in the basement than the kitchen, that could be the first sign,” says Linney, who has distributed 50,000 copies of the book. Most Canadian insurers now put specific riders in their homeowner policies that absolve them of any liability if a property has been used as a grow-op, says May. Power companies are also stinging from the growing grow-ops. Ontario police estimate Ontario Hydro lost anywhere between $3 million and $36 million per month in 2002 from stolen power – losses that get passed on to other consumers. As well, grow-op homes are typically bought with little cash down. A few crop cycles are usually enough to create serious damage, and mortgage-holders lose big when the property re-enters the market. The Insurance Bureau estimates the average repair bill for a former grow-op house is between $60,000 and $80,000. A profitable sideline has appeared for environmental consulting companies in certifying the rehabilitation of former grow-op houses.
Municipalities are also starting to feel the strain. “The workload is becoming an issue,” says Glenn Jenkins, an environmental health inspector with the City of Edmonton. His job is supposed to centre on inner-city housing, but since January he’s been inspecting former grow-ops on an almost weekly basis. “The first thing you notice is the smell,” says Jenkins, who’s seen one home so mouldy that brown stalactites hung from it. “It has a kind of skunk cabbage smell.” Jenkins says he’s training a second inspector to deal with the problem.
After years of cleaning up hundreds of grow-ops at a cost of about $2,500 each, the city of Surrey, B.C., passed a bylaw making owners of such homes liable for the costs. The bylaw, passed in 2001, also gives city health inspectors the right to enter a house where a grow-op is suspected. The spread of grow-ops comes at the same time as Canadians are becoming increasingly liberal in their attitude to marijuana use. But police officers such as Cpl. Lorne Adamitz, a member of Edmonton’s so-called Green Team of municipal and RCMP officers, strive to separate the two issues. “It’s not a victimless crime,” he says. “It’s not just somebody wanting to smoke a joint. “I do believe attitudes toward simple possession of marijuana, those attitudes have changed,” Adamitz says. “But I don’t believe that commercial production of marijuana has been accepted by the general populace.”