Spotting marijuana from the air

By Adam Hunt


COPA Flight 8's September meeting featured Detective Chris Dobler from the Ontario Provincial Police's (OPP) Ottawa Drug Section. Detective Dobler presented a lively illustrated talk on marijuana cultivation to engage the private pilot community in reporting illegal drug crops.

The OPP drug squad has more than 80 officers in 10 deployed operational units in Ontario. They also make use of seconded officers from local OPP detachments when needed for counter-drug operations.

Marijuana cultivation is big business in Ontario, its growing rapidly and is carried out largely by organized crime. Profits from even small operations can run into the millions of dollars.

Canadian-grown marijuana is high quality and averages 12 per cent Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) which is the active ingredient. The OPP have found some local crops that have as much as 35 per cent THC, making Ontario marijuana the most potent in the world.

Much of the crop grown in Ontario is exported to the USA and although there is very little data, marijuana may well be Canada's number one export.

A single medium-sized cannabis plant can yield 4 ounces of marijuana and be worth $1,000 once harvested. A single large field can net more than $100 million.

Detective Dobler emphasized Canada's lower penalties and culture of rehabilitation versus punishment compared to the USA, have some positive benefits for those fighting the drug problem in Ontario. Much of the violence that marks the drug trade in other countries is not found in Canada, including booby trapped grow ops and gun fights over drug busts.

Detective Dobler gave a detailed description of how the plants are cultivated. Over the winter slips or clippings are made from a female "mother" plant and these are then grown indoors under artificial light, often using stolen electrical power to avoid creating suspiciously high hydro bills.

The slips are all made from female plants because the presence of even one male plant will cause the female plants to all go to seed instead of flowering. It is the blooms or "buds" that the growers want since that is where the THC is concentrated.

After the last frost in the spring the plants are moved from the clandestine labs to fields to take advantage of the maximum available sunshine. They may be planted within areas of other crops, such as cut-outs in corn fields, or in wooded areas. They may even be in their own fields in plain view. In many cases they are planted with other crops covertly, without the knowledge of the farmer or landowner.

Once the plants are harvested in the fall, usually after the first frost, they are cut, hung to dry, trimmed and bagged before being sold locally on the streets or exported to the USA.

Detective Dobler showed many aerial photos taken during OPP helicopter drug operations illustrating what the plants look like from the air and how they are often hidden. In particular the plants have a very bright and shiny green colour in the fall when they are mature. They stand out from other crops in the fields and are very easy to spot.

Detective Dobler emphasized that if you spot marijuana growing, note the location and call the local OPP drug section or make a confidential report to CrimeStoppers. The OPP investigate these tips from the public and then either conduct a bust or an eradication operation.

In eradication, the plants are removed and destroyed, without necessarily making arrests, as a measure to keep the drugs from reaching the streets. The OPP pays rewards for the information they receive in an attempt to stem the growing drug problem in Canada.