Growing Pains: Extortion and Racketeering in the Weed Trade
It is a Thursday afternoon in March 2012. Herman just drove back from work when he noticed three large, nondescript vans near his driveway. Police officers were surrounding the 44-year-old’s home, and handfuls of curious neighbors were standing on the other side of the street. “I did not have to think for one more minute. I was busted”. Herman was cultivating a cannabis plantation of over 300 plants in his home.
Recent reports by the Netherlands’ National Police Services Agency (KLPD) estimates that cannabis production here in 2011 was roughly 484 tons. Around 85 percent of the production is meant for export, mainly to Scandinavia, Great Britain, Germany and Italy. Central Unit drug expert John Jespers of the National Police of the Netherlands says the main concern is that plantations are no longer a sole proprietorship. “In most cases they are members of a larger criminal organization. These people are not shunning away from violence, extortion, corruption or even murder.”
Herman says that he was a victim of extortion. Three months earlier, a friend introduced him to a mellow man named Blade when Herman needed money to pay his mortgage. Blade was willing and able to help him and did not ask anything from Herman at that time. In January however Blade approached Herman saying it was time to return the favor. He asked him urgently to make his home available to grow the marijuana that later collected as evidence by the police. Herman could not refuse, because he feared Blade and his contacts in the criminal circuit.
“I should have never taken the money from him in the first place, but now I was forced to do what he wanted” Herman says, reflecting on the circumstances. “I was afraid for my life.”
Blade promised to compensate Herman with a payout equal to a third of the harvest benefits, or roughly €10,000, but Herman says he never saw one euro. After the harvest of the first 100 plants the police invaded in his home.
Typically, five marijuana plants growing at home is considered tolerable, though police can confiscate any amount they discover. When the grower gives up his yield voluntarily to the police, they drop the case. This is not the fact if the grower has five plants with professional equipment. In the latter case charges will always be filed.
Stories like Herman’s are hard to defend, confirms Joost van Breukelen, an attorney specializing in criminal cases involving marijuana. Of the 50 cannabis-related cases Mr. van Breukelen has handled annually since 2004, only a few of his defendants claimed to be forced to grow marijuana on their property. “But it is hard to convince the judge that the client was a victim of extortion, because they have to explain why they did not seek help with the police at an earlier stage,” the attorney asserts. Mr. Jespers adds that it is hard to help people in similar situations if they do not notify investigators of a scheme before an arrest. Considering his already strained finances, Herman has chosen to represent himself in court.
Even though Herman claims that he was the victim in this case, the easy money that can be made in the cannabis business makes it highly tempting for people to cooperate with criminals while ignoring potential dangers. Mr. Jespers warns that this brings more lawbreakers into neighborhoods, and there is also a high risk of fire originating in these plantations.
Herman was not prepared for what happened in January 2012. “I had to hand in my key. Within one week they came to install all the equipment,” he remarks. “They converted my attic and spare bedroom with lamps, air filters and wires. It was really hot in the rooms.” He was also uneasy with the different people that came in day by day to maintain the plants, some of which carried guns. He asked if it was possible to send the same person daily, because this situation was suspicious in his distinguished neighborhood, but Blade’s crew dismissed him.
Police held Herman overnight after he was apprehended. Officers returned unannounced two months later, taking him from his home to a court hearing. He then spent months without electricity, because he has to pay back €6,000 to the electricity network administrator for the extra power that was consumed by the grow operation.
“I felt really down at that period. A cold winter without electricity, no money and my home was a mess,” Herman says.
The financial punishments are often the hardest part home cannabis growers have to face after they have been caught, according to Mr. van Breukelen. Oftentimes, they already have financial problems before getting into the drug trade. Mr. Jespers is also quick to point out that the punishment for having a cannabis plantation can be more than incarceration, or hours of community service. The police works together with many parts of society, including the local municipalities, the electricity network and tax authorities, “every actor that helps take away everything from them,” Mr. Jespers proclaims.
Herman’s trial is ongoing, victim or no victim.