The Canadian Armed Forces and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are continuing their annual joint search-and-destroy mission against illegal outdoor cannabis grows — another example of how the war against the plant is alive and well, despite legalization.
But one Liberal Member of Parliament is calling on his own government to end the long-standing aerial mission dubbed Operation Sabot that he describes as wasteful and futile.
Under Canada’s legal recreational weed regime, only those with government licences are allowed to produce and distribute the product. Some jurisdictions allow adults to grow up to four plants at home for personal consumption. Medical growers also require a licence. That all means that producers who had been illicitly growing cannabis, sometimes hidden in farmers’ fields, are still running afoul of the law.
Since 1989, the RCMP and the Canadian military have teamed up on Operation Sabot to patrol outdoor marijuana crops from military aircraft, typically towards the end of the summer or early fall. Once the crops are located, officers seize them and they are destroyed.
The multi-million dollar mission, which was renewed in 2016 until at least 2019, boasts the seizure and destruction of millions of cannabis plants, something the RCMP says has made a significant dent in the illicit cannabis trade.
This year’s operation took place only in Quebec, according to an RCMP spokesperson, but over the years it has been carried out across the country.
In reality, the mission is ineffective, said Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, a Liberal MP in Toronto’s east end, who has long held progressive drug policy stances and has called on his own party to go further to decriminalize other drugs.
"It’s all the more outrageous now that cannabis is legal and regulated.”
“In a legal and regulated marketplace, and if we have sufficient supply, these efforts should be entirely unnecessary,” Erskine-Smith said of Operation Sabot in a phone interview, adding that he would not support its renewal. And the fact that Canadian Armed Forces are involved does not sit well with him, either. "It’s all the more outrageous now that cannabis is legal and regulated,” he said.
Erskine-Smith would like to see the government funnel the funding spent on Operation Sabot into healthcare programs.
“Every single dollar you’re able to move out of the enforcement system and into the health system, the better off we all are,” he said. “You’re not able to use the military helicopter for health purposes … it’s incredibly stark the idea that we’re using military equipment to go after something as innocuous as cannabis.”
The ongoing existence of this search-and-destroy operation suggests that government and law enforcement acknowledges that, even though recreational weed is legal now in Canada, the black market will not just disappear right away. The enforcement of cannabis legalization has been a boon to police budgets across Canada, and lawyers have warned that police could increase their use of civil forfeiture when going after people who violate the vast number of new cannabis-related laws that have been implemented.
VICE News obtained hundreds of pages of RCMP documents through access to information requests — much of which took more than two years to process — that reveal the planning and resources dedicated to the mission. They also convey the praise and admiration bestowed by high-ranking RCMP and government officials toward the mission.
In March of 2016, former RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson wrote a letter to Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale requesting the use of CAF aircraft for aerial surveillance for that year’s operation. “Since 2002, Operation SABOT was responsible for the seizure and destruction of over 1.5 million plants,” Paulson wrote.
The request was approved, and Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan wrote a letter to Goodale stating his staunch support of the mission. “I note your comments that the RCMP considers the support to the CAF to be indispensable in its annual national marijuana eradication efforts and instrumental to the success of its coastal drug investigations,” he wrote. “I believe that CAF support to this vital RCMP role will continue to serve Canada well.”
In 2010, RCMP Superintendent Eric Slinn, director of the drug branch in Ottawa, wrote a letter to a constable with the Drug Section in Kitchener, Ontario, regarding that year’s upcoming Operation Sabot. Slinn described it as one of the division’s “most successful years for this key national initiative.”
“As you know, this Operation has been a vital part of our drug program for many years, making a significant dent in the fight against marihuana grow-ops,” he wrote, at a time when nearly all Canadian law enforcement and government departments used the spelling “marihuana,” for reasons that are not entirely clear.
“I was very pleased to learn about your success,” Slinn continued. “There is always a new trend to fight, and at times it may feel like your resources are being overwhelmed by the ever-changing, increasingly sophisticated drug landscape. For this, you should taken even more pride in what you do, and accomplishments you’ve realized in support of the RCMP’s organizational priorities.”
The documents include warnings for officers deployed in an operation that’s typically described as low-risk.
One officer’s safety brief notes that in 2008 in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, members were faced with an “operational emergency” when they approached a site that had an “improvised trap used to guard the grow site.”
“Members should be aware that just because a grow operation is outdoors and in a remote location, does not mean that the growers will not set up traps to protect their plants.”
“When approaching a grow site,” the document continues, “members should be aware of their surroundings and continually practice and be aware of the tactical principles while on site. Member should conduct a check around plants for any obvious traps prior to removing plants.”
The records are peppered with mentions of the successes of the missions and the impacts the plant seizures have on the illicit market.
In 2013, an RCMP Investigational Planning and Report noted that “the removal of cannabis marihuana prior to its propagation into communities is a major disruption to street level drugs and organized crime. This directly leads to safer homes and communities.”
And a 2016 document states: “Marijuana continues to be a highly lucrative source of revenue for criminal gangs and individuals. With an interest to continue this lucrative revenue stream, criminal elements will continue to actively pursue information relevant to Op SABOT, enabling them to mitigate any potential risks of detection.”
However, documents show that officers have repeatedly targeted the same locations that continue to grow plants, even after they have been eradicated by the operation.
“Good morning Saboteers.”
Under “Special Problems,” the document notes, “potential for the following: traps, trip lines, spike boards, sink holes, fish hooks, razor blades. Counter surveillance, cameras, and audible alarms. Found-in persons at grow sits, pot pirates, fake-uniformed suspects. Hogweed — toxic to exposed skin, may cause burning when combined with UV light. Dehydration, sunburn, allergic reactions, fatigue, back strain.”
Officers were particularly active during 2016.
“This year should be another good one,’ reads an internal email from an officer. “Myself and Cpl Francis identified 100 sites during helicopter flights on August 18th and 22nd.”
“Good morning Saboteers,” wrote another officer to the team in an email with logistics and a rundown of the schedule. “I will have bug spray and sunscreen available for the teams. Everyone bring a lunch. We won’t likely have time to stop for lunch (unless you find some raspberry plants).”
Cover image: A Royal Canadian Mounted Police member and a CH-146 Griffon helicopter search a marijuana growth area in eastern Ontario during Operation SABOT. Photo by Canadian Forces Combat Camera.