The rumors began circulating on Canadian marijuana-oriented web sites a month ago when people reported that the web sites related to what was arguably Canada's largest seed seller -- nobody really knows -- Montreal-based Heaven's Stairway suddenly went down. (The sites include hempqc.com, cannabisworld.com, overgrow.com, eurohemp.com, and cannabisbay.com.) The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) made it official Tuesday when they announced that the company had indeed been busted in late January and that the owner, Richard Bagdadlian, his wife, and five employees faced serious charges and possible 10-year prison sentences. Other seed sellers and even buyers could face similar attention, the Mounties warned.
"This looks like an RCMP show bust," said Ottawa-based activist Tim Meehan, a long-time cannabis activist currently concentrating on municipal drug policy with the National Capital Reformers. "I think this was meant to put a chill in the seed business and give Prime Minister Harper's American friends the idea that we are doing something about the marijuana seed 'problem,'" he told DRCNet.
Prior to the Heaven's Stairway bust, only three people had been convicted of seed offenses in Canada, and two of them were Emery. None of them got more than a slap on the wrist in the form of fines. Now, Canadian authorities have given notice that the cannabis seed business is fair game, and the Canadian cannabis industry is watching closely.
The RCMP announced it had seized 200,000 marijuana seeds, $200,000 US in cash, and gold, motorcycles, and cars in a series of raids in the Montreal area. The Mounties described Heaven's Stairway as "a Montreal based criminal organization involved in the trafficking, importation and exportation of cannabis seeds, as well as in conspiring for the purpose of cannabis cultivation via the Internet."
The Mounties were sending a clear signal to the cannabis seed industry. "It's an illegal business," said Staff Sgt. Andre Potvin of the RCMP's Montreal drug section. "There has been a general misconception for years even among law enforcement that cannabis seeds are not illegal to possess, and that was clarified with this operation. This has been going on for years and years," he told DRCNet, "and we realized that with the boom in the amount of growing operations that we had better start enforcing the law."
They are doing just that with a vengeance. The Heaven's Stairway arrestees face 49 charges and up to a decade behind bars under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and Criminal Code of Canada for processing what the RCMP said was 30 cannabis seed orders a day averaging $100 each. And since the possession of cannabis seeds is illegal under Schedule II of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, clients of the network could also receive a visit from the police, the Mounties said.
People who did business with Heaven's Stairway should be worried, Potvin warned. "We seized a huge amount of data in their computers and we will be tracing it," he said. "Here in Canada, people who bought seeds should worry. If we can trace customers and link them to the actual growing of marijuana plants, we will be looking at charges. We also received information from the DEA in regard to complaints they had from North Dakota and Wisconsin that kids were ordering seeds from Canada. We have transmitted all the information to all the other partners we have in the world."
"This is probably not a good thing for the industry," Emery told DRCNet. "If you're in the business, make sure you have a good lawyer on retainer, and be discreet! The police have the servers for Heaven's Stairway and all those other sites, and several hundred people are at risk at a minimum. Several thousand are feeling affected and their gardens have probably come down. If you had anything to do with them, you should take appropriate action," he said. "This will create a reduction in wealth and scarcity in our communities."
It's business at usual in the Up In Smoke Café about 50 miles southwest of Toronto in Hamilton, Ontario. Seed sales continue, as do sales of cannabis foods, but customers must bring their own smoke. "We openly defy the law; our existence is an act of civil disobedience," said café owner Chris Godwin. "I don't really worry too much about it," he told DRCNet. "Most rational police forces don't prioritize marijuana offenses, and most cannabis seed outlets are small shops that quietly do their business and pay taxes."
Up In Smoke isn't all that quiet. "I put cannabis seeds on my advertising," Goodwin said, "and we've had cannabis giveaways." He's not alone in Hamilton, which boasts seven heads shops and at least one other seed purveyor. "We had a cannabis crawl where we went to six different cafes, some where they're openly selling pot, others that let you smoke openly. Canada is not utopia, but it's not so bad."
"I still think stores that sell seeds are not really at much of a risk," said Emery. "I think it's the import-export aspect that draws attention. I wouldn't send any seeds to the US, and I wouldn't sell seeds to someone who says he is from the US. But in Canada, the courts have never sent anyone to jail for seeds before."
But selling to the US and selling seeds in large volumes -- both of which Heaven's Stairway did -- can be a problem, Goodwin said. "Doing that is risky business, and things like this can happen. While I wish I could supply that demand south of the border, I don't sell to the United States."
One group that should not worry, said Meehan, was people providing seeds for medical marijuana patients. "Dealers supplying bona fide patients should have no problems with this increased enforcement, unless the police and the Conservative government want to get the 90% of the Canadian population that supports medical marijuana up in arms."
Providing medicine to patients is one thing; running a commercial seed operation for personal profit without supporting the community that supports you is another. Emery was somewhat critical of Bagdadlian and his crew on a couple of counts. "When we were busted, we were able to assure people we didn't lose any data and no one was at risk because we got the word out right away," he said. "In this case, they were busted a month ago and the police ordered them to keep quiet, and the mail kept coming. It is unfortunate that these folks are putting their own preservation above that of the community they served."
Emery also pointed out that Bagdadlian didn't contribute to the marijuana legalization movement, as he has. "They didn't have any political content," he said. "They did nothing to end prohibition; they were profiteers in an illegal industry, nothing more. When the police raided our bank accounts, there was no money, no drugs, no cash, no kilogram bars of gold, no wealth. We had $12 in one account, but they didn't bother to seize that."
On the other hand, said Meehan, Bagdadlian and his web sites were valuable for patients. "Those seeds were used by patients worldwide, and I know offhand at least a dozen legal Canadian medical marijuana patients who used the growing tips they provided," he said.
Movement politics aside, the Bagdadlian bust is an ominous signal early in the Harper administration. Although marijuana decriminalization or legalization is favored by a majority of Canadians, those are not the people represented by the minority Harper government. While the new Canadian government may be playing to the US, its views on drug policy also reflect an antipathy toward cannabis and a fear of drug-related criminality in sectors of the Canadian polity that now have a voice in Ottawa.
The Conservative victory in January's elections may signal a crackdown of sorts, Emery suggested. "I think the police are going to have a lot more money and political license, and they are emboldened to do more and more, from arresting drug users in Vancouver to going after the largest seed distribution organizations."