Gone to pot: the story behind Toronto’s $100-million marijuana economy

Gone to pot: the story behind Toronto’s $100-million marijuana economy

Vietnamese gangs recruit teams of immigrants, install elaborate hydroponic equipment in their basements, and train them to raise potent plants. When the grow ops get raided by police—and they inevitably do—it’s the lowly growers who take the fall. The sinister figures at the top continue to operate with impunity

Tam Ngoc Tran had a comfortable life in his native Vietnam. He was an electrical engineer with a decent income, enough to support his wife and three kids. But, like so many immigrants, he was seduced by the promise of a better future in Canada, and in 1989, at age 41, he moved his family to Toronto. Once here, the best job Tran could find was as a labourer with a company that made marble tabletops. His wife, Lien Thi Pham, worked double shifts in a factory. After several years, they managed to scrape together enough money and cashed in an RRSP to make a down payment on a house—a $220,000 semi at 96 Driftwood Avenue, in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood. Tran, Pham and the children, who were then 20, 15 and 10, moved in in 1997.

Apart from the new house, good fortune eluded Tran. He suffered a series of strokes in his 50s and lost his job. His marriage, which had grown rocky, ended when Pham moved out with the elder daughter. The two younger children didn’t want to leave their schools and stayed with their father. Although the couple divorced, Pham returned regularly to 96 Driftwood, sometimes staying overnight, to check on the kids and to monitor the many medications prescribed to her former husband. For a short while, Tran accepted welfare payments to take care of the bills, but he didn’t want to rely permanently on social assistance. He told his family he was embarrassed to be unable to support himself.

One morning in the spring of 2006, Tran met a friend for a regular coffee date at the Jane-Finch Mall Tim Hortons. They discussed Tran’s money problems, and the friend suggested a marijuana grow op could be the solution. Tran was interested and soon was introduced to two men in the pot trade. They sold Tran 300 marijuana seedlings and supplied grow op equipment, which they installed in his basement. The setup was slick and professional, with Mylar on the walls to reflect light back on the plants, several fans for brisk circulation, and an intricate arrangement of shields and lights. The start-up payments came to $3,000, which Tran covered with the last of his savings. The men, as well as providing equipment and basic growing instructions, would deliver Tran’s grown marijuana into a dealer’s hands and pay Tran a one-third share of the profits—the usual cut for grow op farmers.

The crown seized Tam Ngoc Tran’s Driftwood Avenue house after he was found growing 490 pot plants in his basement (Image: Stephen Brookbank; Illustration by Robin Cameron) 

Unfortunately for Tran, he proved to be a clueless grower. With his first crop, he neglected to weed out the male plants, which are good for little except pollen. Inevitably, they degraded Tran’s female plants, which yield the high-potency marijuana, and he was left without a single usable plant. Tran showed marginally better farming skills on the second crop over the following two or three months, and it brought him $2,100—an encouraging sum, though not enough to pay off his original investment. By the third attempt, Tran had found the knack and was on the way to a robust harvest, but he would never get the chance to cash in on it.

Tran was betrayed by his electricity bills. Staff at Toronto Hydro noticed his house was using five times the power of others on the street and notified the cops. Officers from the drug squad arrived with a search warrant at 11 p.m. one day in late January 2007 and found what they considered an impressive grow op. They counted 490 plants, which, they calculated, were capable of producing 500 pounds of marijuana with a street value of more than $500,000.

Tran was charged with producing marijuana and possession for the purpose of trafficking. Since Pham had been spending the night at the house, wakened in her nightgown when the cops banged on the door, she was charged with the same offences.

Tran and Pham’s friends encouraged them to hire a criminal lawyer named Peter Zaduk. Zaduk’s reputation spread among Toronto’s Vietnamese marijuana growers in the early 1990s after he won acquittals for a Vietnamese-Canadian underworld figure in 10 separate trials for offences ranging from fraud to assault. Attracted by these triumphs, Vietnamese-Canadian clients flocked to Zaduk, who estimates that he has now represented well over 300 Vietnamese individuals accused of running grow ops.

Zaduk’s experience isn’t unusual: other lawyers who defend growers at criminal trials report that a disproportionate number of them are Vietnamese-Canadians. A member of the Toronto Police Services Drug Squad places the total number of Viet­namese at something far exceeding 50 per cent of all marijuana growers in the GTA. Zaduk thinks the figure could run as high as 80 per cent.

The explanation for the Vietnamese domination of the grow op industry seems to lie in something resembling cultural momentum. South Koreans copy fellow South Koreans in opening variety stores, and new Somalis follow other Somalis into the taxi business. In the same sort of career inheritance, recent Vietnamese arrivals often join their friends in running grow ops. If this choice, unlike variety stores and taxis, involves illegality, it’s a point the Vietnamese appear to overlook, either out of desperation or greed or the perception that growing pot is a benign way to make a living in Toronto. Vietnamese-Canadian gangs have become so good at running grow ops that they’ve set up satellite operations in Australia and Europe.

Vietnamese immigrants arriving in Canada are preyed upon by gang members who install grow ops, says Zaduk, “like they’re McDonald’s franchises.” Many new arrivals seize on the idea of running their own business, seemingly unaware that they are vulnerable to arrest and prosecution.

Grow ops are a drug entrepreneur’s dream. They involve none of the potentially messy and always expensive business of importing drugs from such major producers as Colombia, Jamaica and Mexico. As a bonus, the penalties for producing a controlled substance in Canada are less severe than for importing. For years, while smugglers almost automatically drew prison sentences of two or more years, the standard penalty for a small first-time grow op conviction has been probation.

Toronto wasn’t supposed to become a major marijuana producer. That role belonged to British Columbia, with its mild climate and millions of wilderness acres for clandestine growing. B.C. growers sold the majority of their weed to American dealers until the late ’70s, when the U.S. began pressuring the RCMP to crack down. The Mounties obliged, and by the ’80s, many of B.C.’s growers had begun to shift their operations to the east.

Around the same time, new hydroponic methods were proliferating, which facilitated the switch from outdoor to indoor growing, thereby opening the grow field exponentially. Not only can pot farmers now produce crops year-round; they’re also able to turn out marijuana that matures more rapidly and packs a more potent kick.

John Trac and Jennifer Wu, a pair of real estate agents, were caught running pot farms in 54
rented houses across the GTA. Their 27,000 plants were worth $27 million on the street

Many Toronto pot farms are part of a larger organization. A player with growing expertise and the necessary capital will recruit a handful of home­owners like Tran or renters who are willing to convert their basements into marijuana farms. The mastermind supplies and installs equipment and provides advice and distribution.

In one spectacular case, a pair of Vietnamese-Canadian real estate agents, John Trac with Living Realty and Jennifer Wu with the Sutton Group, ran grow operations in 54 rented homes across the GTA—the largest organized scheme in Canada. Trac and Wu were discovered in 2000 when York Region drug cops picked off two or three grow houses. These busts at first seemed incidents of ordinary small-time marijuana business, but when the police looked more closely at the rental agreements and compared notes with cops in adjoining jurisdictions who had uncovered similar grow ops, they noticed that the same renters, references and agent names appeared over and over. The investigation spread across the GTA and involved more than 200 cops and 40,000 transcript pages of wiretaps. The police calculated that the Trac and Wu houses accounted for 27,550 plants, which would have translated to more than $27 million on the street. Trac accumulated deposits of about $2 million in numbered accounts across Canada, with more tucked away in foreign banks. In coordinated raids in December 2002, Trac, Wu and 39 people who worked in the houses were arrested. Wu has since skipped bail and disappeared abroad. Trac, after burning through four defence lawyers, was sentenced in December 2009 to five years and is serving his time in a penitentiary. He’s appealing the conviction, and the Crown is appealing for a longer sentence.

Toronto’s drug squad has busted close to 900 grow houses in the past four years alone. In 2009, after the squad built formidable cases against a series of growers, the courts allowed the Crown to initiate forfeiture proceedings on 35 houses and 115 cars and trucks connected to grow operations. The street value of the pot collected from busted Toronto grow ops in 2010 was more than $100 million. One criminologist estimates that the annual value of the industry, including undiscovered grow ops, is closer to $1 billion.

The problem is, the growers the cops arrest occupy the lowest rung in marijuana commerce. The sinister figures who finance the growers, market the pot and pocket the lion’s share of the rewards are evading capture. Officers in the drug squad have no doubt that the people at the top of the grow op pyramid are members of organized crime groups. According to data from the Canadian Criminal Intelligence Service and the Criminal Intelligence Service of Ontario, marijuana grow ops are now the main funding source for outlaw bikers and Asian gangs.

Vietnamese-Canadian gangs have become so good at running grow ops that they’ve set up satellite operations in Australia and Europe

The first line of defence protecting the higher-ups is provided by the Vietnamese growers themselves, who remain close-mouthed about their bosses. Fear of physical retribution by the drug kingpins may be part of the reason, though virtually no Vietnamese have reported such violence to the police. Far more powerful is the growers’ fear of being ostracized by their communities. In the growers’ minds, there are worse fates than mere arrest.

The dream weapon for the drug squad to compel growers to talk is Bill S-10. Still winding toward approval by Parliament, the bill guarantees that growers will face automatic jail time on first offences, the length of the sentence dictated by the size of the operation. A grower caught with between six and 200 plants would get six months minimum in prison, and from that basic level, the sentences escalate to a year minimum for growers busted with 201 to 500 plants, and two years for a grow of over the 501 mark. With the certainty of serious jail time, growers might be more likely to give up their superiors in the chain of command in exchange for a plea bargain. That, at least, is the theory.

The threat of jail time didn’t shake the resolve of Tam Ngoc Tran. On October 8, 2008, he and Lien Thi Pham arrived at Old City Hall to face their trial before Justice Kathleen Caldwell on charges of marijuana production and possession for the purpose of trafficking. Their lawyer, Peter Zaduk, argued that the Crown had no case against Pham. In order to convict her of producing marijuana in the Driftwood Avenue house, the law required Caldwell to find that Pham had both knowledge and control of the plants in the basement. Nothing in the Crown’s evidence proved Pham’s knowledge of Tran’s basement farm, Zaduk argued. Caldwell agreed and acquitted Pham. Tran’s case would be much more difficult.

The attorney representing the Crown was Erika Sasson. She described for the court the scale of the bust and introduced an expert who testified to the sophistication of Tran’s operation and the street value of his mature plants.

Zaduk’s frequent defence strategy is to go after the validity of search warrants. (He has published a 29-page guide to his legal methods, Techniques in Defending Marijuana Grow Operations.) If a warrant describes abnormally high hydro bills in the alleged grow house but fails to put the hydro figure in context with the bills of other houses on the street, then Zaduk has an opening to get the warrant tossed out. He also succeeds in cases where warrants are based on an officer’s careless or inconclusive notes about drawn curtains or windows showing heavy condensation, or houses appearing unoccupied but receiving visits at all hours by people who come and go.

The only flaw Zaduk could find in the Tran warrant lay in the late hour of the warrant’s execution. Zaduk’s argument, arising out of the common law rather than statute law, was that the warrant must be reasonably executed. In Tran’s circumstances, a late-night execution wasn’t reasonable. The police had no cause to think Tran was carrying on a dangerous activity that only a raid under cover of darkness might counter, that he had a weapon on the premises or that a daytime raid might allow him a chance to get rid of the evidence (he couldn’t easily flush four-foot marijuana plants down the toilet). The customary police knock and announcement during daylight hours was more reasonable than the 11 o’clock raid.

Zaduk knew that the argument was a stretch, but it was all he had—and it didn’t fly. Justice Caldwell pointed out that the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act said nothing about eliminating nighttime warrant executions. The statute, she said, trumped the common law.

With no other arguments in Tran’s defence, Justice Caldwell found Tran guilty. Tran kept his composure, as he had throughout the trial. His last hope was that he could at least avoid jail time. Zaduk has had a high level of success at winning conditional sentences for clients convicted in grow op cases.

Tran’s eldest daughter, Van, was the only member of the family to show up in court for the sentencing hearing. Weeks earlier, after the trial ended, three Toronto dailies—the Star, Post and Sun—ran brief stories on the Tran case. The stories alarmed the family, who had never before been in trouble with the law or had their names appear in newspaper reports. Van, as the oldest and most assured of the children, accompanied her father to the courtroom, prepared to support him as a witness.

When Zaduk called her to the witness box, she testified that her father had been desperate and had fallen under the influence of bad men. Tran took his turn in the box, telling the court it was pride that kept him from accepting welfare payments and drove him into the grow op business. It all happened, he said, “during one blind moment.”

The Crown attorney at the sentencing was a blunt straight-talker named David Rowcliffe. During his cross-examination of Tran, Rowcliffe asked him to identify the two men who set up his grow operation. They spent hours assembling it in Tran’s basement, teaching him how to operate it. Tran must have trusted these men. So what were their names?

Tran said he didn’t know the names.

Well then, Rowcliffe asked Tran, what about the friend who introduced him to the two grow op providers? The friend Tran talked to over cups of Tim Hortons coffee many mornings of the week? The friend who listened to Tran’s money troubles and suggested the grow op solution in the first place? The friend who put him in touch with the two grow op experts? What was the name of that good friend?
Even under oath, Tran said he had no idea what the friend’s name was.

Fear of physical retribution or of being shunned keeps growers silent, though tougher sentences might compel them to give up their superiors in exchange for a plea bargain

Rowcliffe was determined to make Tran pay a heavy penalty; he asked for not just jail time but also forfeiture of his house. Zaduk was angered by Rowcliffe’s zeal. “Even Inspector Javert felt a pang of conscience in his pursuit of Jean Valjean,” he said.

It was during the cross-examination that Caldwell’s doubts about Tran’s credibility crystallized. “Given the nature of the business,” she said, “I fully understand that Mr. Tran might not be willing to supply the names.” But she said his story—he doesn’t know the names—was “absolutely inconceivable.” She believed Tran was shading the truth when he said the grow op earned him no profit. A professional setup like the one in the basement at 96 Driftwood couldn’t possibly have failed as miserably as Tran claimed. To the judge, much of what Tran told the court on several subjects rang false, and some of his testimony crossed into the patently ridiculous.

Tran’s sentence was delivered in March 2009, more than two years after police raided his house. Caldwell held that neither the desperation that Tran’s daughter spoke of in her testimony nor Tran’s claim of pride were compelling arguments in mitigating Tran’s sentence. She conceded that Tran must have done something right in raising his children. Van had married and started her own family, the younger daughter worked in the fashion industry, and the son was attending Ryerson University, paying his way on student loans. Ironically, his children’s success worked against Tran in court. The kids were now self-sufficient, and forfeiture of 96 Driftwood wouldn’t ruin them.

Caldwell decided to give Rowcliffe everything he asked for. She ordered forfeiture of the house and sent Tran to prison for 10 months. Tran knew he was now a man burdened by a criminal record who would emerge from his time behind bars without a job or a home.

Sixty-one years old but looking as ancient as Methuselah, Tran held his hands behind his back and waited for the handcuffs.