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Charges dropped in $2.4-million Norfolk pot bust

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After provincial police seized more than $2 million in marijuana from a Norfolk County property last year, charges largely have been withdrawn against seven people who either had medical marijuana licences or were growing the plants for other licence holders.

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The OPP say many large marijuana growing operations are exploiting loopholes in legislation, but a lawyer for those charged in Norfolk says there’s “confusion” in an industry not being properly regulated and inspected by Health Canada.

In Simcoe’s Ontario Court earlier in May, Ming J. Zhu, 32, pleaded guilty to cultivating an illicit substance and was placed on probation for a year.

All charges were withdrawn against Xinghong Dong, 39, Wu Lin, 34; Xinguo Li, 39; Shengtu Lin, 39, Lei Yan, 37; and Zhan Lin, 38.

Last Oct. 22, Norfolk and Brant OPP, street crime units from Haldimand, Norfolk and Oxford counties and the provincial joint cannabis enforcement team raided the Concession 7 Townsend property near Waterford. A Norfolk man and two men from Markham were arrested and cannabis plants and dry and wet cannabis were seized. The haul was valued at $2.4 million. Four other people were arrested later.

At the time, Insp. Joseph Varga, Norfolk OPP detachment commander, thanked those involved in the investigation, including Norfolk bylaw, fire and roads departments.

“The OPP’s role is to enforce and investigate criminal cannabis incidence and focus on the apprehension of those who produce, sell, distribute, import/export and use cannabis outside of the parameters of both the provincial and federal legislation,” said Varga in a news release.

The charges included: possession of cannabis for the purpose of distributing and cultivating, propagating or harvesting cannabis at a place that wasn’t their home; cultivating, propagating or harvesting a cannabis plant from seed or plant material that was illicit; and possession for the purpose of distributing.

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But Toronto criminal lawyer Darren Sederoff said the issue is more about whether rules were followed than crimes committed.

“A lot of judges across the province are taking the position this is regulatory and not criminal because the federal government doesn’t have a monopoly on marijuana. They allow people to grow for themselves and so these establishments have licences to grow for medical purposes,” Sederoff said in an interview.

He said there is no evidence his seven clients were selling or exporting the cannabis.

He said there is confusion over Health Canada’s definition about indoor and outdoor growing. The Norfolk farm was using a greenhouse, which the workers considered outdoor but the “police believe greenhouses are not outdoors,” he said.

“The judge said Health Canada should have inspectors to deal with these issues. When you get a licence for producing meat, you have inspectors who come and make sure you’re doing everything right.”

Sederoff said there may have been “overages” where more plants than were legally allowed were grown but he insisted any overage was small.

Noting that he is dealing with similar cases in other communities, the lawyer called on the federal government to better regulate the growing of  marijuana plants.

The Norfolk property had plants in a greenhouse and in fields.

Health Canada also allows for licences to be brought together at one property where the marijuana can be grown and, through a complicated formula, each licensee is allowed to grow up to 400 plants.

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Sederoff said the plants and dry and wet cannabis were seized and likely destroyed, while his clients had to present their licences and go to multiple court appearances, meetings with the Crown’s office and the judge.

“Then there was the police expense – the equipment brought in to destroy the plants – yet the majority of this was authorized behaviour,” he said. “This needs to be regulated properly.”

Derek Rogers, regional media relations co-ordinator, said the OPP respects the court decision but stands by statements made by OPP Det.-Insp Jim Walker, who criminals are exploiting the “Health Canada medical cannabis personal and designate production regime by diverting the cannabis to the illegal market and are profiting greatly from this illegal activity.

“If there’s a loophole, they will exploit it,” Walker said. “They’ve done that in a majority of these cases.”

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