Every year as summer comes to an end, teams of Canadian military and police officers patrol the skies in helicopters hunting for illegal marijuana grow-ops nestled in farm fields below.
It's called Operation Sabot, a joint effort led by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) involving the armed forces and other local law enforcement, that launched in 1989 for the sole purpose of destroying illegal marijuana plants across the country. Since then, hundreds of thousands have been confiscated, and many criminal charges have been laid ranging from possession to trafficking. After it's over, the force basks in positive media coverage featuring impressive photos of officers in aircrafts and trunks full of weed plants freshly plucked from the soil.
But while police and many federal politicians hail the anti-pot effort as integral to curbing organized crime and keeping communities safe, there's questions about its effectiveness — especially as the drug is slated to become legal next year for recreational use.
At the moment, only people with medical prescriptions can buy marijuana through government-licensed companies that grow and send it through the mail.
"The once-a-year sweep of outdoor grow-ops makes little to no difference on the illegal drug trade in Canada," said Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, a Liberal member of Parliament for Toronto who has been critical of heavy-handed law enforcement tactics when it comes to drugs. He says Operation Sabot is a "perfect example" of why cannabis should be legalized soon.
"The best way to combat organized crime and their profits is through regulation and legalization, not through photo ops of drug busts ... a lot of time has been spent on fighting the drug war with little success," he said.
Based on surveillance and tips from civilians, Operation Sabot targets different parts of the country every year just prior to when the plants are expected to be harvested. They keep the location secret, so it's anybody's guess where they are headed for this year's mission, expected to begin late next month.
Last year, they hit fields in Nova Scotia.
"The helicopter allows for a different perspective," RCMP Const. Mark Skinner told Global News during the mission last year as they flew over farmland. "It's easier to spot the plants, where we couldn't necessarily see the plants from the ground."
Officers fly around looking for signs of weed, and alert colleagues on the ground, who go in, cut the plants down, and take them away. That year they confiscated a total of 76, 375 plants, according to numbers obtained by VICE News. The whole thing seems intense, but pales in comparison to similar anti-weed air operations that happen around the world in places such as Paraguay, where the country's drug squad slashes and burns hundreds of hectares of illicit marijuana fields with millions of plants.
In August of 2012, Alberta's drug squad teamed up with Operation Sabot to seize 3,578 plants from three grow ops out of a total of 63,000 plants seized that year during the entire mission. A 27-year-old man was fined $10,000 and had to serve a two-year conditional sentence. It took two years before his case finally went through the courts — signaling that anyone charged with marijuana-related offences after this year's operation could still be going through the court system long after recreational weed becomes legal in Canada.
While many cannabis activists initially praised the Liberal government's move to legalize marijuana, they have started to criticize the government for taking a heavy-handed approach toward regulation that includes a chokehold on the legal supply chain.
Operation Sabot cost the government more than $11.4 million from 2006 to 2013, according to documents put forward in Parliament in 2014. This figure does not include military and RCMP expenses. In 2009 the military forked over $2.5 million to help seize and destroy 145,480 plants — the second largest haul after 2010, which yielded 171, 378 plants.
As for whether Operation Sabot should continue after legalization, Erskine-Smith said that depends on the nature of the new government regulations around cannabis. "If it's a closed production system, people may turn to the black market all over again," he said.
Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne