The lure of huge profits is drawing ordinary citizens into the crime of growing marijuana in their homes despite the health and safety risks and the prospect of going to jail, a judge in Newmarket has warned.
"The potential financial rewards were so great that hundreds of persons in this area with no prior criminal history were becoming involved in this activity," Justice Joseph Kenkel said in a recently released judgment.
Kenkel sentenced Van Hai Phi, who had no prior criminal record, to nine months in jail for marijuana possession and production and hydro theft.
Canadian courts rarely jail first-time offenders for non-violent offences. The judge said he wanted to send the message that courts will not tolerate the region north of Toronto becoming a "haven for drug traffickers and their suppliers."
Phi could have received up to 14 years in prison for the production charge alone.
York Region Police stumbled onto the 732 marijuana plants when they visited Phi's house to investigate a traffic accident last year. Instead of letting police in, Phi fled and hopped over fence in the backyard, Kenkel said.
Police found buckets of chemicals and an illegal hydro meter bypass designed to disguise how much power was being used to grow the plants. An estimated $85-million worth of hydro is stolen in Ontario each year.
"Unfortunately, only a jail sentence would sufficiently deter Mr. Phi and others like him from participation in these lucrative enterprises," said Kenkel.
"A jail sentence is also necessary to denounce the substantial risks posed by placing these operations in residential areas."
Police estimate grow ops can generate more than $200,000 a year by producing several crops. It's been called a billion-dollar-a-year business, run in about 50,000 homes across the country – 10,000 of those in Toronto.
That kind of money attracts other criminals, noted Kenkel. He said a number of violent invasions of grow operations have posed an unacceptable risk to neighbours.
Former grow ops present health concerns as well. Mould usually flourishes in the houses, which are sometimes cleaned and sold to unsuspecting buyers, say police.
And despite the hazardous conditions, children live in many grow ops because they help the operators disguise what is really going on, say police.
When police dismantle the operations, they go into those same homes in biohazard suits and oxygen masks.
In the judgment, Kenkel said police have laid nearly 1,000 charges and shut down 820 grow ops in York Region in the past seven years. A total of 110 children lived in those homes.
Markham and Vaughan traditionally have the most grow ops in York Region, followed by Richmond Hill and Newmarket, police statistics show