On a bright spring morning in 2012, in the Kootenay region of B.C., Emma Wright* dropped her daughters off at their elementary school and returned to her log house to find three black SUVs parked under the apple trees and an armed, flak-jacketed RCMP unit in her kitchen. Her husband Peter* stood by wordlessly as a man dug through the freezer. In the living room, officers were taking family photo albums off the shelves. From upstairs there came the thumps and scraping sounds of furniture being moved. A cop dressed in black led an excited German shepherd into the bathroom on a tight leash. The officers had a search warrant.
The raid lasted eleven hours, Emma Wright says, ending with her and her husband's arrest on charges of marijuana production for the purpose of trafficking. Evidence of a grow-op had allegedly been found in a closet-sized room in their basement.
Three months after the raid, a bailiff came to their door and handed the Wrights a letter stating that the government was now laying claim to their house, vegetable gardens, woodshed and swing-set. Though the existence of the alleged grow-op had yet to be proven in court, the letter claimed that the Crown already had "reasonable grounds to believe" that the property had been used to carry out a crime. As the 2005 B.C. Civil Forfeiture Act states, a person's property may be seized, "even if no person has been charged with an offence that constitutes unlawful activity [or if] a person charged with an offence... was acquitted of all charges."
Because the act falls under the civil as opposed to the criminal code, decisions are made administratively under the assessment of the Civil Forfeiture Office's (CFO's) unnamed director. While judges used to hand out mild sentences to small-scale growers on trial, the new act means punishment for these offences is determined behind closed doors. Even those who used to grow legally have been shut down by the Harper government's new medical marijuana regulations, which will prohibit individuals from growing. Since the Civil Forfeiture Act was implemented, the CFO, whose stated purpose is to "take the profit out of crime," has hauled in $41 million.
Since the early 1970s, the remote west Kootenay region of the Purcell Mountains near the B.C.-Alberta border has been a prime location for marijuana cultivation. A vast network of inactive logging roads provided easy access to south-facing clear-cuts where mineral rich soil was irrigated by glacial spring run-off — perfect conditions for bud-heavy weed plants. It didn't hurt that there was little to no police presence between many of the unincorporated lakeside towns, places with names like Argenta, Rosebery and Glade. And all through the region, there was an unceasing demand for high quality bud.
The Kootenay region has long been a place where smoking pot is part of everyday life. Joe De Maria*, a resident of the Slocan Valley, was part of the original wave of young, idealistic people who converged in the Kootenays in the '70s. "The valley was idyllic," he says. "In the beginning, growing marijuana was just part of the mentality. It wasn't until the '80s that a lot of friends and neighbours started to make good money from it."
At first, people grew their plants on the mountainsides around their homes. When they started getting high prices from Calgary and Vancouver, they began to poll together and export their crops. The growers shared their horticultural knowledge and their clones, cultivating stronger, more refined strains.
While they exported around the country, the growers also had a market ten times the size of Canada's just south of the border. The Kootenays lie on the 49th parallel; the U.S. is just a hike, or snowmobile ride, away. "It wasn't until the next generation, when the kids started growing indoors and taking it across the border, that the industry blew up," De Maria says. By the early 1990s, logging had all but ground to a halt and official unemployment rates were high in the region. Signs of recession, however, were hard to find.