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Both Sides of the Law

October 20, 2009  By Drew McCarthy

Late summer and early fall in southern Canada is harvest time. 

Late summer and early fall in southern Canada is harvest time. Fields and orchards across the land teem with farmers, pickers and trucks collecting agricultural bounty and sending it along to processors, food terminals and markets.


Fall is the time when Canadian farmers reap what they have sown, at least most of them, but there is another type of farmer who may see the fruits of his labour go up in smoke, literally up in smoke, and that’s the pot farmer.


Outdoor marijuana growing operations are plentiful. Police intelligence on the location of contraband farm plots across the country comes in a variety of ways, but the most effective tool for finding and eradicating them is aerial surveillance, and, in particular, the helicopter.

This year saw a bumper crop – an eradication bumper crop – for law enforcement. In late August, in the London, Ont., area alone, 22,000 marijuana plants were destroyed in one week, almost as many as the 23,723 plants destroyed in the entire province the previous year, and almost double the 11,694 found in 2007.


On Vancouver Island, police were likewise having unprecedented success. At Helicopters magazine press time, police teams were predicting the eradication of at least 30,000 plants before the end of the year. They had already surpassed last year’s total by early September, seizing 24,500 plants during the first week of operations.

Eradication programs are cross-services team efforts that include the RCMP and provincial and municipal police forces, along with the assistance of the Canadian Armed Forces. In 2008, such programs found and destroyed 196,630 marijuana plants in Canada.

In what is becoming an increasingly growing ritual, airborne law enforcement teams take to the air each fall, locating the crops and directing eradication teams to the sites. Police and Canadian Forces helicopters can fly at low altitudes and are able to identify the marijuana from the air because of its unusual colour. The plant is not native to Canada and appears out of place: When seen from the air, it looks fluorescent green.


Given that crops are always hidden in the middle of cornfields, forests or other hard-to-find places, they stand out from their surroundings. Sometimes their locations are so well hidden and difficult to reach that there is really no other effective way of finding them except by helicopter.

Since the noise of the helicopters often gives away their arrival, it’s rare that police make any arrests at the site. The roundup does, nonetheless, have a significant impact on criminal activity and affects the illicit income that fuels crime.

The indisputable effectiveness of the helicopter in fighting the illegal drug industry in Canada is heartening. Unfortunately, its unique characteristics can also make it a powerful tool for the other side of the law and, in particular, and ironically, for drug smuggling.

In a recent Associated Press (AP) story (“Choppers becoming easy way to smuggle drugs”– www.katu.com), it was reported that air transport is generally considered to be the best way for smugglers to cross the border. The helicopter has become the aircraft of choice because of its versatile flying characteristics and ability to land almost anywhere.

In spite of eradication and other enforcement efforts, it is estimated that criminals in B.C.’s marijuana trade smuggle anywhere between 30,000 to 80,000 or more pounds of pot into the U.S. every month.

The AP article points out that, “Helicopters can skim treetops, flying as close as three feet to avoid radar detection. They can dart through low mountain passes or river valleys and land at a remote clearing or even a wide spot in a logging road, where they’re met by GPS-equipped drivers. They’re back across the Canadian border in minutes.”

The AP reviewed the situation and found that of 10 pilots arrested in roundups of British Columbia-based helicopter smuggling operations this decade, at least half had recently trained at flight schools. In fact, in some cases, students dropped out once they knew just enough to handle the machine. That sounds frighteningly familiar.


Increasingly, the responsibility for security within our society, and, in particular, within aviation, needs to be accepted by all members of the community. Pilots who aren’t planning flying careers or don’t show a real interest in recreational flying, and buyers or lessors who are not forthcoming with details on their intended use of the machine should be suspect.

Helicopters are capable of doing so much more good than bad, but it’s up to the people who own and fly them to ensure that they are used properly, and that we all continue to be proud of the industry.


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