From the outside, it was a blank industrial building that had seen better times. But inside was another world - galaxies of high-powered grow lights, kilometres of irrigation tubing, armed "farmers," and endless green waves of top-grade marijuana.
That was the scene police encountered this weekend in a raid that uncovered an odd and uniquely ambitious criminal operation - an indoor marijuana farm "bigger than a football field" that was located next to one of the busiest highways in Canada.
"You had to see it to believe it," OPP Superintendent Bill Crate said after touring the operation, which was set up in a former Molson brewery on the east side of Highway 400 in the Ontario city of Barrie. The highway, a main conduit for commuters and cottage-goers, carries up to 159,000 cars a day.
Police arrested 11 people after a Saturday morning raid, then spent the weekend collecting evidence at the colossal indoor marijuana farm, which was located in windowless space inside the former brewery.
News of the epic bust spread quickly through Barrie. "I didn't think Barrie was the dope capital of Ontario," said a clerk at a downtown store. "I figured it would be Mississauga or something."
Supt. Crate said there were "thousands upon thousands" of plants in the indoor farm, which was attended by "farmers" who lived inside the former brewery to guard and tend the plants, which were grown in hydroponic tanks under huge lamps. The plants were watered by an extensive irrigation system.
Police said the operation occupied several sections of the former brewery, which was closed in 2000 when Molson reorganized its operations amid declining sales, putting 414 people out of work. Since then, a number of companies have leased space in the roughly 11,250-square-metre125,000 square foot complex. Among the current tenants are a bottling company, a coffee-roasting firm and a trucking outfit. The owner of a nearby industrial operation said he had "no clue" that a massive marijuana farm had been operating in the brewery.
"All I know is that trucks would come and go," he said. "There was nothing unusual about that."
The weekend raid on the brewery site was a massive operation that included more than 100 officers. Among those involved in the operation were SWAT teams, canine units, and bomb-disposal experts. Supt. Crate said that large-scale growing operations are often booby-trapped, and that further hazards are presented by "pirate" connections to high-voltage power lines used to run growing lights.
"It took most of Saturday just to make sure it was safe," he said.
There was a certain paradox to the marijuana operation's discovery, given that Barrie is a perennial competitor in a national contest known as "Communities in Bloom," which recognizes towns and cities for "the imaginative use of flowers, plants and trees." (In 2001, Barrie was a winner in the category of towns with populations between 101,000 and 300,000.)
Although police had not released official estimates as of yesterday, it appears that the value of the crops grown in the former brewery could reach into the tens of millions of dollars. Supt. Crate said there were several thousand plants, ranging from seedlings to "mother plants" that were used to harvest seeds for new crops.
"It's huge," he said. "Huge."
Sergeant George Cabral of the Barrie police force said the operation was well organized and elaborate: "Someone went to a lot of trouble and expense," he said.
The raid on the growing operation came after an investigation by the Huronia Combined Forces Drug Unit, a task force that includes officers from four different police forces. Spokesmen would not elaborate on how they learned about the operation, but a police source said the arrests came after a "street tip."
"Something this size can't stay secret forever," the source said.
The Barrie operation reflects a growing trend. According to Green Tide, a study prepared for the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, indoor marijuana growing increased by more than 250 per cent between 2000 and 2002 in Ontario. Police estimated that in 2002, Ontario was home to as many as 15,000 operations, producing marijuana with an estimated value of up to $12.7-billion.
From the 1970s through the early 1990s, most marijuana was grown outdoors. But by the mid-1990s, savvy growers had discovered that indoor operations were easier to hide and far more profitable, since crops could be grown year-round.
Indoor growing was pioneered in British Columbia, but was soon transplanted to Ontario. Although most growers operated out of suburban homes, police have noted a recent trend toward large operations based in industrial spaces, which produce significant economies of scale.
The former brewery appears to have been a near-perfect venue. After touring the site yesterday, one officer compared the rooms of marijuana to "a little Saskatchewan."
"It just went on and on," he said. "You've never seen anything like it."