Beware the rip-off!

Jerald Davis never saw it coming. The 27-year-old East Vancouver resident and his wife Cindy were smoking herb with a former housemate and her boyfriend one rainy night last winter, when their world was suddenly changed forever.
“Jen [the ex-housemate]knew about our grow room,” Davis explained. “We were growing some Emery seeds, and harvesting a couple of pounds of prime bud each cycle. I usually sold half and kept half for stash.”

Davis’s housemate had lost her job, acquired a new boyfriend, and moved out of the Davis’ house a month earlier.

“She owed us money for long-distance calls,” Davis said, “and she said her boyfriend had lots of cash and would come over with her and pay the debts and buy a quarter pound.”

The two couples shared a smoky and relaxed evening, during which Davis and Jen’s boyfriend Sal examined the grow room and the quarter pound of dried bud.

Around midnight, Davis says, “Sal stood up and said we had to do the deal because they had to leave. I wrapped the pot and brought it out. When I got back, Sal was standing in back of Cindy, pointing a gun at her. He told me to give Jen the herb, and told me that if anybody heard about this, I’d be shit. Then they just walked out the door, laughing. I ran over to Cindy and we held each other crying and shaking. I didn’t know what to do.”

Smarter, way smarter

The Davises aren’t the only people wondering what to do about violence and rip-offs in the pot industry.

“Obviously, we’re in an unregulated black market,” says Dale Stekirsty, a Vancouver cultivator and hydroponics expert. “We can’t call the police, so we have to protect ourselves, and that means we have to be smarter and tougher than the bad guys. Way smarter.”

Stekirsty learned the necessity of smartness the hard way. He and his girlfriend woke up one evening at 3 am to find very unwanted visitors in their home.

“Somebody was on my back,” Stekirsty recalls, “and I could feel a sharp blade on my back. The guy said all he had to do was lean forward a little and I’d be dead. He asked [my girlfriend]to get up and show him where our money and weed were. She was naked, and I didn’t know how many guys were there or what they’d do to her. When I protested, I felt the blade go a little deeper. I shut up, and just lay there tripping out. We were lucky, because they only took the pot, two watches, and a ring. They taped our mouths, ankles and feet with duct tape and left. I guess it could have been worse.”

Much worse. Statistics or other official records of marijuana industry violence are not kept by anyone, but anecdotal stories of rip-offs and violence abound. In major growing and exporting regions such as British Columbia, almost every grower knows of, has heard about, or has been victimized by theft or abuse during pot transactions.

Growers, tokers, smugglers and innocent bystanders have reportedly been pistol-whipped, burned with cigarettes, stabbed, raped, even shot to death. There are reports, apparently credible, of gangs of seemingly cool, well-dressed white men who bring garden shears and other devices to use in case victims are uncooperative. According to some reports, victims have had fingers cut off and endured other torments, even after giving up their pot and money. The rumour mill claims that Hell’s Angels, Asian Triads and even off-duty cops may be involved in the rip-offs.

Getting out of the business

The situation has gotten so bad that some growers and street-level providers have decided to get out of the business altogether.

“I’m not going to do any deals with anybody any more unless I’ve known them forever,” said Jim, a 16-year-old entrepreneur who along with older partners buys large quantities of pot and retails it in downtown Vancouver.

“I walked into a situation recently, carrying $10,000, and I saw that there were some big guys in there and it felt wrong. So I went to the bathroom and put my cash in my crotch, and took my fanny pack and put it around the front. When I got back in the room, there were five of them and two of us, and an Uzi. They got $5000 from my friend, but they didn’t find shit on me,” Jim said, his face bruised and cut from when the robbers threw him on the ground and stomped the back of his head.

You don’t have to be engaging in clandestine transactions in motel rooms to get ripped off. Just ask David Malmo-Levine, the dynamic Vancouver-based marijuana activist whose Dutch Embassy Marijuana Flower and Herbal Tearoom was robbed several times in 1996 and 1997. After both gun slinging civilian and police robbers terrorized Malmo-Levine and his customers, he gave up and closed the Embassy in early 1997.

Policing ourselves

These horror stories have led marijuana-industry leaders to propose coalitions and vigilante justice to deal with rip-offs.

“We’re in a difficult situation,” Stekirsty says. “We need to make it clear to thieves and assholes that we will fight back, track them down, make them pay. We need to police ourselves, but I doubt that our industry will ever get it together enough to do that kind of cooperative effort.”

According to Corporal Bob Hall, a spokesperson for the RCMP, the only sure way for growers and exporters to protect themselves is to “get out of the business.”

“The drug trade has always been dangerous,” Hall said. “It’s a terribly risky business. If you’re in that industry, you are placing yourself in harm’s way.”

Hall said that RCMP has not received specific reports of pot-industry violence.

“We rely on the subculture to tell us what’s going on,” he explains, “and of course they don’t want to tell us and they don’t want to snitch. If they want our help in stopping these incidents, they’re going to have to tell us what happened. We will handle it like any other criminal complaint.”

So is Hall saying that marijuana producers and sellers who get ripped off or hurt can contact the police without fear of becoming targets of investigation themselves?

“Well, no. If somebody filing a complaint is currently involved in an illegal grow operation and there is evidence of that, we have to enforce the law. They could be held on charges,” Hall responded.

Hall said police are “extremely concerned” about the hazardous ancillary effects of Canada’s burgeoning marijuana industry.

“There are organized crime syndicates moving in, and with them comes guns, robberies and violence. People who are uninvolved with the drug trade are caught in the crossfire. The hippies are being replaced by people with guns and lots of money and very dangerous attitudes. No matter what we think about marijuana, we have to tell people that if you grow or sell it, you are asking for big trouble,” Hall warned.

Prohibition breeds corruption

Yes, it’s depressing to read about violence and dishonesty in a pot magazine, but prohibition breeds corruption. As long as pot is illegal and worth more than its weight in gold, people will be doing nasty things to each other during marijuana transactions.

If you’re growing, buying, exporting or selling, make sure you value your life. If you don’t, there’s plenty of vicious folks out there who’ll take it from you for a handful of buds.

Be aware, take care

For people who like growing pot and don’t want to call police for help when problems occur, here are some tips to help keep you safe from predators. You’ll notice that most of this advice will also keep you from getting busted as well!

Remember: just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you!

Knowledge is power: Know who you’re dealing with before you deal with them. Don’t be so eager to buy bud, show off your product or get paid for it that you ignore common sense and intuition. Everybody who knows that you grow and/or sell pot is a potential problem, so before you tell somebody your business, make sure they are rock solid. If you don’t know them well enough to know whether they are solid, then you probably don’t know them well enough to be talking about pounds and dollars.

Be invisible: Grow rooms are plentiful in many cities, and the rip-off people know that. Maybe they walk around potty neighborhoods with drug dogs, looking for houses that smell good. Maybe they look for halide light escaping from cracks in a door or window. Maybe they look for houses with “buzz” ? lots of pot people hanging out and going to and fro. So make sure that the way you live, the appearance of your house, and other external factors give no indication of the agriculture within.

Loose lips sink ships: The tongue can be an instrument of pleasure, but it can also be a vector of despair. If you tell people you grow or have pot for sale, you have given them a key to your life. Be careful what you say, where you are when you say it, and how loudly you speak.

Strength in numbers: Bring friends with you (preferably studly muscleboys) when you are expecting a transaction. Meet on your own turf, not somebody else’s. Don’t bring all your money or pot with you to an initial meeting. Make it so that rip-offs have less to steal. Insist on your own security, and if you have any inkling of bad feeling or suspicion about your business associates, back out. You don’t need the money more than you need your fingers.

Stay Calm: Try not to be so broke that you need to sell immediately. Desperation breeds mistakes. Manage your life and business so you can choose when to sell rather than being forced into it by an eviction notice. If you are caught in a rip-off situation, breathe deeply, focus on survival, stay alert. The life you save may be your own.

Greed Kills: Try to keep the money issues in perspective. Avoid hooking up with criminal types, even if they are flashing copious amounts of Yankee cash. Love your life and that of your lovers, friends and associates more than you love the dollar.

Karma exists: Lots of people get busted because a disgruntled lover, housemate or other associate uses law or theft to enforce a personal vendetta. Although it’s impossible to make everybody happy all the time, the less people you lie to, rip off, disappoint or otherwise offend, the less likely it is that somebody with a grudge will one day pay you back by putting a gun to your head or sending a gang of thieves to your house.