This Bud Isn’t For You!
Quebec Provincial Police Bushwhack Pot Harvest
Story by Robert J. Galbraith, Special to the Montreal Gazette
Its harvest time in the Eastern Townships, but for many here who farm Quebec’s most valuable crop – marijuana, there is no pot of gold in their field of dreams. Their plantations are being nipped in the bud by Brome-Missisquoi’s cannabis cops.
Earlier this week, a squad of provincial police went out on a day-long operation to eradicate a portion of the region’s illegal crop. This would be only one day of many to follow, as the time for harvesting nears.
Before heading out into the fields and hillsides, Charles Beaulieu, an agent with the Dunham detachment of the Quebec Provincial Police explained, “every year we find more and more plants. So far this year, and we are just getting started, we have found and destroyed 4000 plants, which at around $1000 a plant, is a fair amount of money for the growers.” Now, with peak harvest time just a few weeks away, the team is going out every day. “This will be our full-time job from now on. There is a lot of work to be done by our seven-man team.”
By 9am, the small convoy of a half-dozen vehicles was pulls out of the station onto highway 202 east, heading towards West Brome. Fifteen minutes later the entourage parks beside a small river where the agents mount a pair of ATV’s and head along the banks to a site where a tip-off has reported there were a number of pot plants flourishing.
Working like skilled pedicurists but with pairs of pruning shears, the agents make fast work of the 60 plants, which are hidden amongst the tall grasses on the banks of the river, a stone’s throw from the beautiful town of Sutton. Most pot farms are very close to water. Cutting the budding plants at their base, they tie them together with bailing twine and load them onto the vehicles, while a herd of dairy cattle chew their cud and watched from a neighbouring field. The confiscated harvest was driven back to the road and loaded into a waiting truck, and the ATVs are put back on their trailer. “A small-time operation,” explains Beaulieu. As quickly as they showed up, the pot cops are on the road, this time to Brigham.
The convoy heads west along Highway 104 and turns off at a dirt road flanked by corn fields and thick forest, and stops in front of a lead car which has traveled ahead of the convoy to pinpoint the location. This had been relayed via the radio of a small airplane that was circling overhead, using a GPS to close in on the site and relay the information to the ground. “Most of the sites we find are the result of citizens calling our Crime-Info Line. They could be birdwatchers, hunters, hikers or farmers who don’t want the pot on their property,” said the agent.
By this time the team had been joined by 3 RCMP officers from the Lacolle detachment who had brought along their own ATVs. “We are here to assist the SQ agents,” explained one of them. They openly eye the SQ’s flashier vehicles and comment that they wished they had flashing lights and police decals on their ATV’s.
Jumping a culvert at the side of the road, all the agents head through a thick wall of alder and black spruce on what was no more than a narrow deer trail. Fifty-yards from the roadside and through the thicket, they reach a small opening in the tangle where dozens of healthy pot plants stand tall and bulbous with numerous buds. These plants were much better endowed than the first group they had cut in West Brome, perhaps owing to the fact that they were in a plot protected by the thick underbrush.
Soon the agents had decapitated the weed with machetes and shears. Meantime, some other agents wear protective safety glasses to protect their eyes from being gouged by branches as they drive their ATV’s, fanned out to look for more plots. And they found them – a plot of 30 plants and another of 20. Laying the cut plants in groups of 10, they tie up the weed into bundles, then hoisted the bundles onto their shoulders. They tote them out of the underbrush to the truck, where another agent is stacking them like cordwood. In the field the atmosphere is businesslike and direct. There is little small talk as the concentration is overwhelmingly on the contraband crop.
All that was left at the scene of the crime are a few pathetic leaves, and a bunch of stumps sticking out of the dirt. In a final coup de grace, Beaulieu ties a wide strand of police scene tape across the narrow pathway leading to the now naked patches of denuded earth. Is this a taunt, a final insult? No. “This is to let the grower know that the SQ took their plants and it wasn’t a rival or a rip-off, which is often the case. It’s sort of like a calling card,” he chuckles.
In the pick-up truck on the way to the next location, the apple growing region of Frelighsburg, the driver explains, “we move fast and get the job done. That last group of plants was easy, even though we had to carry them out. Sometimes we have to go into areas with imposing hills that the ATV’s cannot manoeuvre on or get into, so we have to hike in and drag all the plants out over difficult terrain and at great distances. It can get quite physical.” Perhaps this is the reason that the agents don’t look a day over 25 and all of them are very fit.
By now the hot cab smells like an Amsterdam café. The concentrated marijuana resin absolutely reeks, like a mixture of skunk, pin needles and sickly honey. It’s a glue and is in their hair; it’s running off with their sweat, its clogging everyone’s noses. Clumps of leaves grip their muddy, army-style boots. The khaki overalls are grimy. Everyone wears gloves. The agents relax and eat apples and chat as the radio crackles in the background, but the smell stays like an invisible fog.
Approaching the rolling hills, a sign indicates, Municipalite de Frelighsburg They turn onto a lane way leading past a well-kept barn and farmhouse where the convoy stops and unloads the SQ and RCMP ATV’s. A pair of farm dogs come out of the house wagging their tails and sniffing at the police veer onto an old trail eroded and furrowed by tractor wheels. One side is lined by an ocean of ten-foot-tall corn. The other is a rising hillside covered by a forest. It is magnificent country, with the hardwood leaves already showing tints of autumn colouration, with the gold and green vista shimmering like a landscape painting.
After 15 minutes, of following a machete-brandishing agent, the ATV’s have somehow threaded their way through the gauntlet of ditches and other natural hazards to reach another small trail leading directly into the forest, where a large open patch of goldenrods and Hawthorne cover the hillside, below which a beaver pond can be seen. Then large patches a marijuana plants rise above the vegetation like bushy six-foot tall Christmas trees – a pothead’s dream.
Some of the agents set to work slashing away at the hefty stalks, falling the bud-heavy giants, while others quarter the area looking for other plots. Three other groupings are soon found and the cutting party moves through them, dropping the plants to the ground. All the agents then take to bundling and tying the weed. Heaving the bundles onto the front and back of the ATV’s, they bungee cable the sheaves securely for the rough ride back to the truck. They have a difficult time negotiating the terrain of furrows, downed trees and fence wire and have to be pushed and cajoled over the quagmire by pushing, huffing agents. Everyone is sweating profusely, and their overalls are soaked with dew and perspiration, and the spotter plane turns in tight circles overhead with its engine whining like some giant hornet.
Three men are sitting on the porch of the farmhouse with cold drinks in their hands, watching the marijuana being transferred to the truck. One of the policemen chats with them. “It doesn’t bother us,” one of the men says. “As long as we’re reimbursed for the corn that was run over.” None of them offer up their names.
Next is a short break, and the agents fuel up on plastic-wrapped submarine sandwiches and candy bars. One of them smokes, a cigar. Then a message comes over the radio. The spotter plane has just stumbled upon 500 plants near Eccles Hill, just 10 minutes away.
Approaching their discovery, there’s more corn, a large soybean field, and a 12-foot-wide creek. Then a grove of pine trees, then a thicket of goldenrods interspersed by thick, stinging nettles and low, thick brush, proliferating along the banks of the creek. “Watch out for the nettles,” one agent calls out. But it is too late, and everyone’s arms are stinging from them. But that is soon forgotten. In this business the nose tunes up quickly and you can smell it before you see it. Large groups of plants are scattered over an area half the size of a soccer field. They are large, mature plants brimming with eight-inch buds.
The agents break up into groups of two or three and get to work hacking away at the deep green marijuana trees. It is picturesque, like a postcard view of farm workers in a sugarcane field in Cuba. Three plastic buckets of fertilizer lay stashed under a thicket of Hawthorne. The hacking and slashing sounds and the ripening smell fill the forest.
The cut-a-thon and bundling goes on for a good hour. Perhaps a dozen trips are made from the plantation back to the truck to drop off their loads. There is a vibrant, upbeat pace amongst the agents. This find was a big bonus, no one expected it.
“This is at least a quarter-million-dollar crop, though possibly much more,” explains Beaulieu, as he wipes his brow of sweat and dust. “In the next 3 weeks to a month, after the first couple of frosts, the plants energy is concentrated to the buds and their THC content skyrockets. (THC is the chemical found in marijuana that produces the high). Two people can run a plantation like this, of 500 plants. It’s not organized crime, just some locals. Someone else will buy it and transport it across the border, less than ten minutes away from here.”
Everyone began saddling up for the next bust. And so the day went. At the end of it, they had raided seven plantations and confiscated 1400 plants, a typical haul. Value: well over a million dollars. The pot would be buried in a landfill, at an undisclosed site, leaving no carbon footprint behind. Only the worms would be getting high on this stash.
To a man (and woman, there was one woman agent), they all love their days’ work. There wasn’t any griping, everyone was happy, there were no complaints. And there are many more harvest days to come. But inevitably, the larger reality must set in, and as autumn bites they will return to their more routine and mundane policing tasks, which are not without their own rewards. In this case, on the drive home, the six car convoy is interrupted as the point car makes a traffic stop. They arrest a drunk driver. At 5:30 in the afternoon. The convoy moves ahead. That was it. No one said much about it. No one said much of anything. There was just an air of satisfaction.