This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on March 14, 2005. Partner content is not updated.
Four RCMP Officers Killed in Grow Op Raid
THEY NEVER SAW IT COMING.
The four ROYAL CANADIAN MOUNTED POLICE officers gunned down on the morning of Thursday, March 3, lost their lives while guarding a crime scene - a cache of supposedly stolen auto parts and a marijuana growing operation belonging to a notorious local thug named James Roszko. That morning was supposed to be taken up with the kind of dull, routine police work that officers quickly grow accustomed to. But instead, Roszko returned to his farm outside Mayerthorpe, Alta., 130 km northwest of Edmonton, with an assault rifle and a score to settle. The events that unfolded may end up having profound implications for the way this country deals with drug enforcement.
To many observers, most notably senior police officers and federal politicians, the deaths were not just an isolated tragedy, but a symptom of something bigger. To them, the murders of Peter Schiemann, 25, Anthony Gordon, 28, Lionide Johnston, 32, and Brock Myrol, 29, were a gut-wrenching call to action. More than that, the deaths were an indictment of Canada's lax attitude toward recreational drugs like pot. The country had barely begun mourning the fallen officers when the calls began for more police, tougher sentencing, and a broad crackdown on what RCMP commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli called the "plague" of marijuana production in our society.
Colleen Myrol, the mother of one of the slain officers, made a statement that spoke to the whole country's grief, and our deep common desire to strike back for the loss of these four young men. "It is time that our government take a stand on evil," she said. "It is time to take our liberal-minded attitude to task. Prime Minister Paul Martin, we depend on you and we expect you to change the laws and give the courts real power."
Others, like Liberal MP Dan McTeague, were even more explicit. Pointing to a proposed marijuana bill currently before Parliament that would, among other things, decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot, he called for that legislation to be rewritten to include a minimum sentence of four years for those convicted of running marijuana grow ops. "This has gone too far," he said. "We have legislation that may have the unintended effect of increasing marijuana grow operations. I think it's now time for Parliament to target marijuana grow operations." Those sentiments were echoed by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, the Canadian Professional Police Association, and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, among others.
But was marijuana really the root cause of the events of March 3? Was it, as police suggest, an inevitable escalation in the long-running war on illegal drugs? Or was it really just the eruption of an armed and disturbed individual? Will more police, tougher drug laws, and more enforcement really prevent such tragedies from happening again? To many criminologists who've studied the illegal pot trade, the answer is an emphatic "no." In the emotional aftermath of the tragedy, police and politicians are missing the point, they argue. And by justifying a marijuana crackdown on this basis, the authorities not only ignore the facts of the case, they run the risk of inviting more hardened criminals into the pot trade - and triggering more violence down the road.
THERE IS LITTLE DOUBT that the cultivation and trafficking of marijuana is exploding in this country. And because organized criminal gangs are often associated with the pot trade, a host of societal ills are also on the rise, according to police. An RCMP report released last summer on the state of drug enforcement in Canada said that an average of 1.1 million plants were seized annually over the previous five years, and that was up six-fold from 1993. Pot seizures by U.S. customs officials at the Canadian border surged seven-fold between 2000 and 2003.
A recent report from the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police noted that authorities dismantled 1,490 marijuana grow ops in that province in 2002, more than triple the number raided just two years earlier. The report estimated that such operations were responsible for almost $100 million in financial losses that year, mainly as a result of electricity stolen from local utilities. Both the RCMP and OACP reports suggested that the potential for violence associated with pot production could also increase.
"The issue of grow ops is not a ma and pa industry as we have been saying for a number of years," Zaccardelli said on the day of the shootings in Alberta. "These are major, serious threats to our society, and they are major, serious threats to the men and women on the front line who have to deal with them. They are booby-trapped. They are high-risk issues, and major organized crime, in many cases, is involved."
While the risk of confronting drug lords is real, police statistics suggest fears of traps and fatal shootouts may be somewhat exaggerated. The OACP report said that only about two per cent of grow ops uncovered in Ontario are booby-trapped. Guns were found at only about six per cent of grow ops raided in B.C. In fact, the marijuana trade has always featured relatively low rates of violence, says Neil Boyd, a professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University. He disagrees with those who would use this tragedy to rally public support around a crackdown.
"It's not surprising when you get a horrific crime such as this and a grow op is front and centre in the portrait - people will use that to jump into the marijuana decriminalization debate," Boyd says. "It's probably more appropriate to look at this individual and what he represents rather than to focus on any policy that ought to come out of such a horrible tragedy. I'm not at all clear that this case has as much to do with grow ops as it does with a person whose own father describes him as evil."
Boyd has a point. While the debate over grow ops gathered momentum in Ottawa, the Mounties were piecing together a tragedy that looked less like an ill-fated drug bust than the outburst of a man many in the community knew was ready to blow. Far from a shadowy practitioner of the hydroponic arts, the 46-year-old Roszko appears to have been constantly in the face of whatever legal authority happened to pay him a visit - while engaging in a variety of enterprises that ensured they would.
His rap sheet featured a range of offences, from using illegal firearms to unlawful confinement to impersonating a police officer. In 1999, he reportedly shot a man in the shoulder for joy-riding on his property, and he was imprisoned in 2000 for 2½ years for sexually assaulting a boy. There was plenty of other evidence to suggest he was unstable. Neighbours in the sparsely populated farm country near Mayerthorpe depicted him as a loner with a grudge against the world, shunned by his family due to his anti-social behaviour. Roszko's 80-year-old father described him as a "wicked devil," telling the Edmonton Sun that "I don't want him as my son. He must have been doped up. That's when he was very dangerous."
Nor was it clear that marijuana was Roszko's primary criminal enterprise. According to police accounts, the slain officers were awaiting the arrival of the RCMP's auto-theft unit in Edmonton, after a bailiff's efforts to repossess a truck led to the discovery of what police say were stolen truck parts and some 20 marijuana plants.
Most troubling of all, though, was Roszko's unmistakable distaste for the law - an antipathy the local authorities knew well. It came to a head in August 1999, when RCMP accompanied a bailiff to his land to seize property over an unpaid debt. The Mounties declined to go in with her, instead lending her a protective vest and a radio with which to call them in case of trouble. She wound up talking to Roszko that day, she said in an affidavit, and "he constantly manipulated the conversation to blame the RCMP for all his troubles." She did, however, leave the farm without incident.
All told, the facts raise potentially painful questions for the Mounties that have little bearing on the issue of grow ops. Could they have done more to protect their officers against an attack unprecedented in Canadian police history? Did Roszko's predilection for guns - combined with his well-established hatred for police - warrant a heavier presence on the property? A full investigation of the incident was launched last week. But it was clear that such questions were hitting raw nerves with the RCMP. "If we see somebody walking down the street we've had a history with," spokesman Cpl. Wayne Oakes snapped at one point, "we don't automatically take out our guns and start pointing them at him."
THAT SAID, it should come as no shock that the drug issue has monopolized debate surrounding the killings. It was, after all, one of the reasons the officers were on the property to start with. And there are signs of growing frustration with the proliferation of a business many in the country regard as a scourge. For years, police and regular citizens have watched helplessly as the hydroponic trade flourished in their communities, turning residential homes into shuttered dope factories. And while police are calling for a crackdown after last week's tragedy, you could argue that one has long been under way - with relatively little in the way of tangible results. Between 1992 and 2002, for example, the number of cannabis offences recorded by police rose 81 per cent. Yet a 2002 report by a Senate committee on illegal drugs concluded that pot production has been on the rise, to the point that some 50 per cent of the marijuana consumed in Canada is grown domestically.
In some quarters, the sense of futility has begun to boil over: Chilliwack, B.C., enacted a bylaw setting fines for property owners connected to grow ops. And the sorrow expressed last week over the officers' deaths often came to anger over the growth of the dope trade. "If you legalize pot, then what did these officers give their life for?" asked one retired officer from Quebec, his voice cracking. "Why should we give in? We should get out there and clean it up."
But many experts in the drug trade say there is a serious danger that lawmakers and law enforcers will let anger and grief drive their decisions. By raising penalties and cracking down on supply, police may well drive more production into the hands of well-financed and well-armed organized crime gangs, Boyd says.
For example, the North American trade in heroin and cocaine has attracted a much more violent and aggressive brand of criminal element, Boyd says - largely because the profits associated with those drugs and the penalties resulting from conviction are so much higher. Police cannot reduce demand, and by raising the stakes in the marijuana trade, they may force out small-time, non-violent producers and turn even more of the market over to hard-core gangsters, inevitably leading to an increase in violence associated with the pot trade.
That fear is echoed by Eugene Oscapella, an Ottawa lawyer and long-time critic of Canada's drug policies. Oscapella points out that it is extremely rare for Canadian police officers to die in the course of drug investigations. Rather than increasing efforts to stamp out marijuana, he says, government should be talking more seriously about regulation along the lines of alcohol and tobacco. "The grow ops themselves are a product of prohibition," Oscapella says. "Violence associated with the trade in marijuana stems from the fact that our government in its folly has chosen to deal with this drug through a prohibitory model rather than a regulatory model. There is no violence when you go to the liquor store."
But few were listening to that line of reasoning last week. Police and politicians were determined to make marijuana the villain behind Roszko's rampage. And that leaves Boyd shaking his head. "I'm not convinced that marijuana was at the heart of why these people were killed. But if it was, then that's the tragedy," he says. "No Canadian should ever lose his or her life over marijuana. It's just not that important a substance."
See also DRUG USE, NON MEDICAL.
Maclean's March 14, 2005