Memoir: growing a few pot plants in the basement seemed like a great idea—until I got busted
On the evening of July 25, 2007, I was trimming the drooping branches of the weeping mulberry tree in the garden of my house in a quiet Scarborough neighbourhood. It was a warm evening, and people were out for after-dinner strolls, walking their dogs, riding their bikes, working in their gardens as I was. Suddenly a voice shouted out behind me: “Step away from the tree! Drop the garden shears and put your hands where I can see them!” I turned to watch a short, paunchy man with a brown handlebar moustache, wraparound shades and a blue baseball cap charging across the lawn with a Glock pistol pointed at my head.
Within seconds, several police SUVs had squealed to a stop along the sidewalk. A dozen cops poured out, led by a female officer in a blue jumpsuit and army boots. They handcuffed me, my sons, 18-year-old Nicky and 19-year-old Carson, and parked us on the couch.
Someone—probably a nosy neighbour—had told the cops about our marijuana: we had a hydroponic unit in the basement containing eight plants about two feet high and a garden tray of cuttings. I’d given Nicky his first joint two years earlier, after a painful dental operation. He’d started growing plants soon after.
I told all this to the arresting officer, but she dismissed it as “crap.” According to her, I was running a grow op, trafficking in an illegal substance and had money stashed around the house—and they were going to find it. For two hours she paced back and forth in front of the couch, shouting that we’d never live in our house again. “No siree, boys! This place is gone, baby, gone!”
Just before 9 p.m., the cops drove us to 43 Division, where we were charged with possession of a substance for the purpose of trafficking and taken to separate cells for the night. The air conditioning was set to frigid, and the toilets in our cells—no seats, no paper—had overflowed and flooded the floor. Shortly before 3:30 a.m., we were finally permitted to make one phone call—without phone books or operator assistance. Nicky left a message with his mother (my estranged wife), while Carson and I opted to consult with our duty-counsel lawyers. They advised us not to say anything—the police were listening in on our conversations.
After mug shots and fingerprinting the next morning, we were transported by paddy wagon to the Old City Hall courthouse, where we spent the day in The Pit, a grimy, moldy-smelling cell in the basement, crammed with suspects awaiting their bail hearings.
Our surety finally arrived late that afternoon. My wife and her sister and brother-in-law posted the $5,000 bond for Nicky and Carson, and an old friend posted for me. The most onerous condition of our bail was that the house was considered a crime scene: we were not allowed on the premises until the case was concluded. I explained I was a writer and needed to work from home, but the judge told me that wasn’t his problem. My children went to live with their mother while I stayed with friends or lived out of my car.
The next six months were a blur of two-minute court appearances and tense negotiations. My wife, fearing the government was about to confiscate our house, insisted we put it up for sale. We received an offer for the full amount we were asking, but the buyers weren’t able to arrange a mortgage once their bank found out the property had been used as a grow op. Another couple put in a bid, then lowered it by $49,000 when they learned of the house’s past. In no position to bargain, we signed the offer.
In January 2008, the case was resolved. On the advice of his lawyer, Nicky pleaded guilty to P-for-P—production for possession—and accepted a plea bargain: a $3,000 donation to a drug charity of his choice and a $3,000 fine to the court. As part of the deal, the court dropped the charges against Carson and me.
It took a long time to get back to normal. Nicky had turned 18 a month before the bust, so he had a criminal record; his chances of getting a regular job were slim to none. Angry and ashamed that I’d messed up my son’s life so badly, I slipped into a depression, one that brought dark days and sleepless nights. My hands developed a tremor, I didn’t want to eat, I jumped at any loud noise, and my blood pressure spiked any time I saw a police car.
Within a few months, my depression lifted and we began to rebuild our lives. That spring, when the police returned $1,000 seized the night of the raid—not the proceeds of crime after all, but money from Nicky’s summer lawn-cutting—we took the cash, obtained a small loan from one of his aunts and started a landscaping business. We made enough money to move into an apartment together toward the end of the summer, our lives more or less back on track: still working with grass, as Nicky liked to joke, but just cutting it now, not growing it.
Paul Illidge is the author of The Bleaks, a memoir, published this month by ECW Press.
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