Farm workers in cannabis grow raids are often oblivious to the criminal nature, says OPP

Illegal marijuana grow operations appear most often on the OPP radar in Essex County, and during raids, farm workers are “almost every time” completely oblivious to the criminals behind the cannabis, police told CBC News.

Organized crime entities use illegal cannabis grow operations as “easy, quick” and “relatively risk-free” money, according to the Detective Inspector. Peter Donnelly, central commander of the Central Region Organized Crime Branch. This money is then used to traffic in harder, illicit drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamines and fentanyl, he added.

“The sheer amount of money he gives them access to is scary,” Donnelly said.

Part of his role is to manage the Provincial Joint Forces Cannabis Enforcement Team, which works with local police departments. Donnelly said his team specifically focuses on “organized crime and its tentacles reaching into the cannabis market.”

It’s a mix of local farmhands and migrant workers who become entangled in what they believe to be a legitimate cannabis operation.

Det.-Insp. Peter Donnelly of the Central Region Organized Crime Enforcement Branch says organized crime entities are using illegal cannabis grow operations as “easy and quick” money. (Jason Viau/CBC)

The deception starts when workers receive documentation that says cannabis is legal in Canada, and sometimes they see a legitimate license, Donnelly said.

“But what people don’t know is that these people are way beyond the scope of their license and they have very many sites,” said Donnelly, who has seen situations where a group can have 40 different illegal cannabis cultivation places.

“They are [workers] attracted to what they believe to be a legitimate business. Normally they have no idea what they are doing is criminal.”

The Ontario Provincial Police seized a large amount of illegally grown cannabis in Leamington earlier this year as part of an organized crime investigation. (OPP)

Sometimes the conditions are harsh and difficult, Donnelly said, and in most cases the workers are “super cooperative” because they were completely oblivious.

“So they’re happy to tell the police who they work for, what exactly they’re doing and how long they’ve been doing it.”

Migrant workers ask for help

In November, Santiago Escobar, national representative of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union of Canada, said he received calls from migrant workers in such situations.

Santiago Escobar, national representative of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union of Canada, says it can be complicated and overwhelming for migrant workers to be criminally charged for something they thought was legal . (Jason Viau/CBC)

He said some left what they described as an abusive employer, sought other jobs through a temp agency and were placed in an illegal operation they were told it was legit.

“These workers told us they were misled,” Escobar said. “These workers are voiceless, abandoned, facing many obstacles, and because of their precarious status and lack of representation, they are easy targets for these kinds of unscrupulous employers and criminals.”

He said it can be complicated and overwhelming for migrant workers to be criminally charged in something they think is legal, and then need financial resources for legal representation.

In most raids, according to the OPP, workers who unknowingly participate in an illegal cannabis grow operation are not charged.

If the person is a migrant worker, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) told CBC News, they “will not be criminally inadmissible” in the future as long as there are no charges. or convictions.

Even those who are charged or found guilty can go through a process known as authorization to return to Canada. This allows them to “demonstrate that there are compelling reasons to come to Canada,” IRCC spokeswoman Julie Lafortune said in an email.

The Ontario Provincial Police cited this as an example of a large illegal cannabis grow operation in Leamington that officers raided. (OPP)

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), which is responsible for admissibility screening and removals, said if a temporary foreign worker loses their job through no fault of their own, it does not automatically prevent them from enter Canada and they will not automatically be sent home.

In some cases, according to the CBSA, a migrant worker may be eligible for employment insurance. There are also government supports to help them find a new job or placement in Canada.

If the migrant worker wishes to return home, it is usually at the expense of the employer who brought him here.

Employment and Social Development Canada told CBC it does not tolerate any abuse or misuse of migrant workers through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. The federal agency outlines a vetting process to determine if a job offer made to each migrant worker is genuine and legal.

Cannabis money used to traffic other drugs

The Ontario Provincial Police say organized crime groups are using these workers to funnel funds from illegally grown cannabis to other parts of Ontario or Canada.

Recently, Donnelly said, his team raided an operation that was supplying cannabis to illegal storefronts. They seized $6 million in pot and $400,000 in cash.

“They only care about the easiest way to make the most money possible,” Donnelly said. “They grow cannabis to make money, to buy cocaine, to buy meth, and then they traffic it into the communities that you and I live in.”