Monday, April 17, 2006

Grow op law erodes your right to privacy

VICTORIA - You can understand firefighters' concerns about marijuana grow ops.
Almost 10 per cent of building fires in Surrey last year were in grow ops, says Chief Len Garis, and many were particularly dangerous to fight. In a normal house fire breakers trip and kill the power supply. But in some grow ops jury-rigged electrical systems mean firefighters encounter live wires as they fumble blindly through smoke-filled rooms and tangles of equipment.
That's why Garis and other fire chiefs lobbied for the new law that will force BC Hydro and other utilities to hand over information on customers and their electricity use.
But the law raises serious privacy issues. The legislation - still to be passed - would let municipalities require BC Hydro or other utilities to provide two years worth of power bills for every resident. (Regulations will limit the act's application, government officials say. Hydro will screen the reports and just pass on ones that show people who use a lot of power.)
The town will look at the files, and then be able to come to your house and post a notice giving you 48 hours to prepare for an inspection. The idea is that if you have a grow op, either you'll dismantle it or the inspectors will.
The plan worked in a Surrey pilot project. More than 90 per cent of the flagged properties had grow ops; 119 marijuana operations were shut down.
Or were they?
More likely they moved down the road, or into a neighbouring community. There is money to be made at a risk level that many people find acceptable.
And the tactic likely worked in part because the operators weren't aware that their power use information was being shared with the municipality. Once they are, they will adapt. The dangers may actually be increased if growers decide to try improvised wiring to bypass the power meter, or switch to propane or gas-powered generators. A move to more smuggling, or large outdoor grow ops, would bring different problems.
The firefighters' frustration is understandable. A University of the Fraser Valley study on grow ops found that in 1997 police across B.C. investigated more than 90 per cent of grow op reports within one month. By 2003, that had fallen to barely 50 per cent. That means grow ops operate longer, and the risks for firefighters increase.
But the new law isn't likely to make people stop growing marijuana, or make firefighters safer.
It will expand the state's reach into the lives of its citizens. Authorities can get your electricity records now. They just have to demonstrate a reasonable suspicion that you may be running a grow op. But BC Hydro has refused to hand over their customers' information on a random basis, citing privacy laws.
It's an important principle. The state doesn't get access to information about you unless it can show a good reason. The BC Civil Liberties' Association opposes the new law. B.C. Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis questioned the need for it, and says this kind of government surveillance - without any grounds for suspicion - is increasing, and a cause for concern.
It's not an easy public policy question, and it's made more difficult by our fumbling approach to marijuana use generally. The Harper government has announced it won't go ahead with decriminalization. But practically, marijuana use is legal since the laws are not enforced. Even grow ops have - as the study showed - become a low police priority.
StatsCan found almost 600,000 British Columbians fessed up to using marijuana in the last year. That's an attractive market. It is hard to imagine what sort of enforcement would actually cut off the supply of a product that many people want.
That's the challenge. Maintain some enforcement, especially aimed at organized gangs and keeping residential neighbourhoods safe, without sacrificing police resources needed elsewhere.
It's a tough balancing act. But it should mean the careless loss of individual rights.
Footnote: If the main marijuana public policy issues are the risks of grow ops in neighbourhoods and the role of criminal gangs in profiting from the industry, a different response should be considered. Allowing people to grow a handful of plants without penalty would reduce the threat to neighbourhoods and the available profits for gangs.


Anonymous said...

Some grow ops folks are no doubt a bit stupid and might simply plug in past the meter. I would believe most simply bypass the meters which is very dangerous. So let's cut to the chase. Hydro bills shouldn't need to be monitored by big brother. Leave mine alone because anytime governments get into looking over our shoulders it always gets more invasive than first thought.

IF the cops want to raid or the firemen want to hose down the place, cut the power on the way in. Shouldn't take more than a couple of seconds as somewhere near by is a tranformer or chop the wires prior to the meter.

To give a couple of days notice is just as dumb

Anonymous said...

Of course the growers will just bypass the meter

How many fires will they be responding to once idiot joe grower tries to tap into his power lines?

How will firemen feel about going into a house the the power hasnt been cut off because its hooked up illegaly

Having firemen and city inspectors approach criminal growers is the stupidest thing ive ever heard - there is a reason they send the swat team to grow-ops
You are dealing with potentially very dangerous individuals that may not look kindly on trespassers

Anonymous said...

The overwhelming majority of growers are Mom and Pop operations. They have little to do with 'organized crime'. The idea that Swat Teams are necessary to check up on a grow op is absurd and a ridiculous waste of police resources. They generally tear down and scurry away as soon as they are served an inspection notice. It proved quite effective in Surrey, BC.