Friday, October 15, 2010

With B.C.'s 20,000 grow ops, the pot war is lost

B.C. Hydro is getting ready to tell the utilities commission that it's losing $100 million worth of stolen electricity to grow ops every year.
The Crown corporation is including the estimate as part of its justification for spending spend $930 million on smart power meters for customers. The meters should make it easier to detect theft, it says.
That $100 million figure should tell us something about the foolishness of our current drug policies.
It's big money, equivalent to the electricity used by 77,000 homes, B.C. Hydro told delegates at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention this month.
The corporation also says grow ops use three to 10 times as much electricity as an average house.
Take the midpoint for grow op power use and the $100 million means some 17,000 grow ops are stealing electricity right now in the province.
All these numbers are a little overwhelming. But consider that there are 1,300 liquor stores, public and private, in the province. For every store, there are 13 grow ops stealing electricity.
But that's far from the total number. Many operators use generators or take the risk of running up big B.C. Hydro bills and hope they don't get caught.
And there are big outdoor marijuana crops across the province.
The RCMP does annual fall patrols, often using planes and helicopters. Last year, officers chopped down 29,000 plants on Vancouver Island, likely a fraction of the total outdoor plantations.
So, if B.C. Hydro's submission to the B.C. Utilities Commission is accurate, there are certainly more than 20,000 grow ops in the province at any time and could be up to 30,000.
Which suggests that the idea that police are actually going to make any real dent in the marijuana industry is pure fantasy.
It's physically impossible - without thousands more police officers on the assignment - to deal with that number of offenders.
The number isn't the only issue. Estimates of the value of the marijuana industry to B.C. are all over the map, with Forbes magazine putting it at $7 billion a few years ago.
Conservative estimates have the industry contributing $3 billion to $4 billion a year to the economy.
That virtually ensures that as fast as police detect one grow op and seize the plants and equipment, another one will open.
So on one hand, there's an expensive and largely pointless effort that makes no real impact on marijuana production and sales in the province.
And on the other, there are the negative impacts.
The most significant is the enormous boost handed to criminal gangs. Because marijuana is illegal, the grow ops are hugely profitable. The money enriches the gangs. It also fuels the rivalries and gang wars that bring violence to communities.
That's understandable. Practically, growing marijuana and growing tomatoes involves similar input costs. Tomatoes sell for about $1 a pound. Marijuana brings more than $3,000 a pound at the retail level. The profit motive ensures the grow ops aren't going away.
And police have pointed out that gangs often trade B.C. marijuana to their U.S. counterparts for cocaine that is then imported into this province.
It would simply be foolish to continue this costly, futile charade.
So why not legalize and regulate marijuana?
That doesn't mean ignoring the risks of pot use, which are real, despite the denials of the more enthusiastic supporters.
But alcohol and tobacco both have much more serious risks. We have accepted that regulation is the best way to manage them.
And it will not eliminate illegal grow ops. There is still a good export market.
But it would cut into the criminal profits. Police would have a slightly more manageable task. And crime would be reduced.
Californians will vote next month on legalization.
It is long past time for Canada to acknowledge that the current drug efforts waste money and increase the reach of crime and that it is time to try something new.
Footnote: California's government estimates taxes on legal marijuana sales could produce $1.4 billion a year in revenue, while providing significant savings in policing and prison costs. The initiative - to be voted on Nov. 2 - is opposed by some police, politician and religious groups and by the states beer and liquor distributors who fear lost profits.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

B.C. Hydro stats support legal, regulated maraijuana

The Baltimore Sun has noticed B.C. Hydro's estimated that $100 million worth of electricity is being stolen each year for grow ops. Reporter Jay Hancock helpfully reminds readers that British Columbia "is to pot what Texas is to oil" in a post here.
The Times Colonist also noticed. An editorial today looks at the numbers and concludes, based on B.C. Hydro data, that $100 million of stolen electricity would power about 17,000 grow ops. Add in outdoor grows and indoor operations using generators or legal power and on any given day there are some 20,000 to 25,000, the editorial concludes.
Isn't it time to legalize and regulate marijuana, the editorial asks.

Useful update on the BC Rail corruption trial

Ian Reid was in court and has an interesting post on the reasons for yet another delay in the trial at his blog The Real Story.

"Outside the courtroom, Special Prosecutor Bill Barardino went off the record with the three reporters in court to try and explain why he’s delaying the trial again. Seems he’s not been able to reorganize his trial strategy and shorten the trial. He also wasn’t able to confirm that his next witness will be former finance minister Gary Collins, despite the fact that he’s sent a letter to the defense informing them that Collins is the next witness."

See more here.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Scientists building a whole new salmon species to farm

I'm keen on building a better world through science.
But the idea of creating a new species of salmon in the lab, patenting it, raising the new creature in fish farms and selling it to consumers freaks me out, as the young people used to say.
That's what AquaBounty, a U.S.-based aquaculture company, is proposing. The company has applied for U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for its genetically modified Atlantic salmon. It even has a name for the new fish - AquaAdvantage(r) Salmon.
AquaBounty likes the fish because it reaches market size in 18 months; normal farmed Atlantic salmon take three years.
The new fish was engineered that way. The company took Atlantic salmon DNA and added a gene from Chinook salmon, which are bigger eaters.
Then it added a gene from the ocean pout, a big eel-like fish. The pout has remarkable tolerance for cold water; its gene triggers the Chinook eating gene to help the new fish pack on weight quickly.
The plan is to produce eggs for the new AquaAdvantage fish at the company's Prince Edward Island plant. They would be flown to Panama where the salmon would be raised in land-based tanks. Then they would make their way back to our tables.
We eat genetically modified foods every day. Most people's cupboards are full of food products - corn, soy, rice - that rely on genetically modified seeds.
Not everyone agrees, but the benefits in increased food production have widely been seen to outweigh the drawbacks.
But the AquaAdvantage(r) Salmon is the first effort to create a new animal, bird or fish as a food source.
As they say in the movies, what could possibly go wrong?
The FDA has given the fish preliminary approval for human consumption. The meat isn't chemically or nutritionally different from Atlantic salmon. But the U.S. agency hasn't yet given approval for the plan.
Critics aren't convinced. Some research, they say, suggests more allergies could be created by genetically modified food.
But the bigger issues are around the impact of the fish on the environment. What if the AquaAdvantage salmon escaped from the fish farms. It's genetically programmed to grow twice as fast as real Atlantic salmon. That could mean it would be twice as effective in gobbling up food sources, leaving the wild fish struggling to compete.
No worries, says AquaBounty. The P.E.I. lab will only create eggs that produce sterile females. The Panama fish farms mean that even if there is an escape, the salmon will die in the warm rivers in that country.
And if, through some bizarre series of circumstances, the ubersalmon ended up in the oceans off Canada, they are not likely to do well, the corporation says
And the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance says it's not interested in using the lab-created salmon.
The problem is that the salmon aquaculture industry has some credibility issues. It insisted, for example, that escaped Atlantic salmon could not possibly spawn in B.C. rivers.
Until researchers found the offspring of escaped fish swimming in Island streams.
This is about much more than salmon farms. Researchers have lots of ideas about building new, improved animals.
Scientists at the University of Guelph, for example, hope to get approval for a genetically modified pig. Hogs need phosphorus but are lousy at digesting it. That means farmers pay for supplements and the manure is an environmental problem as the undigested phosphorus is a fertilizer that can promote algae growth in water systems.
The Enviropig, as they call it, cam digest phosphorus more efficiently, solving both problems.
What's striking about the bid to win approval for the AquaAdvantage salmon is the inadequate process. The U.S. FDA has a limited mandate. The broader issues of creating new species need not be addressed.
Trust us, the food companies' scientists say. Everything will be fine.
What could possibly go wrong?
Footnote: The FDA is also undecided on whether the genetically modified salmon would have to be labelled so consumers would know what they were - or weren't buying. The industry opposes labeling as unnecessary.
In the near term, the fish would be identifiable - there aren't many Atlantic salmon that would be labeled 'Product of Panama. But that would be little use if more new species are approved for sale to consumers.