OPP seize nearly 12,000 cannabis plants from large greenhouse

| Morton Robertson

Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) seized nearly 12,000 cannabis plants from a large illicit operation in the St. Catharines area in early May. 

The OPPs Joint Forces Cannabis Enforcement Team, along with Niagara Regional Police, executed search warrants on May 6 at a greenhouse facility on Third Avenue Louth. 

Police say the value of the seized cannabis was nearly $12 million. Law enforcement in Ontario typically values a cannabis plant at around $1,000 each. 

Detectives shared with media that around 11,800 plants were seized, along with 77 kilograms of “Cannabis shake”

The OPP say the facility was authorized to produce fewer than 1,000 plants. Such limitations based on plant count only exist for personal and designated medical production licences. 

A few days after the initial raid, a second search warrant was executed by law enforcement at a nearby residence. Rodolfo Ramirez, age 40, and Gervi Santamaria, age 25, were taken into custody and have been charged under the Cannabis Act with cultivating cannabis without authorization.

This is not the first large cannabis bust in the area. The largest raid in Niagara Regional Police history was made at a similar greenhouse operation in the area of Third Street Louth and Main Street in city of St. Catharines in 2020.

The Niagara region has seen numerous large-scale raids in the past several years of similar operations. Beginning in the fall of 2021 and dubbed “Project Gateway”, investigators from the Niagara Regional Police Service (NRPS), Peel Regional Police (PRP) and the Hamilton-Niagara Detachment of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), uncovered an import/export ring bringing cocaine and tobacco into Canada and exporting cannabis and tobacco from Canada. 

In 2019, police in Niagara arrested one man for growing over 1,000 plants which police say was worth over $1 million.

In 2017, police in Niagara busted two large medical grow ops that police said were operating under fraudulent Health Canada medical licences for personal or designated use. 

Also in 2017, the Hamilton-Niagara RCMP, with the assistance of the OPP and the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada—the national financial intelligence agency of Canada (FINTRAC)—began an investigation into a potential money laundering scheme that was operating through casinos in the GTA and Niagara regions.

Five individuals are facing charges relating to illicit cannabis production, money laundering, and the proceeds of crime. One farm and three Greater Toronto Area (GTA) residences were also seized.

In 2016 there was a bust of a man with 500 plants.

In 2015 Niagara police busted a man for over 1,000 plants that they also valued at just over a million dollars.

The Niagara Regional Police Service also maintains a list of Niagara locations where its officers have executed search warrants for the indoor production of cannabis and other controlled substances.

The Provincial Joint Forces Cannabis Enforcement Team (PJFCET) is an OPP-led Joint Forces Operation that has active participation from all the major police services in Ontario including the Niagara Regional Police.

The team was established after cannabis was legalized recreationally in Canada in late 2018 and is responsible for enforcing cannabis laws and investigating criminal operations that exploit or abuse the legal cannabis market in Ontario.

In its most recently-available figures for 2021, the OPP says the PJFCET Unit was involved in numerous investigations resulting in the seizure of illegal cannabis, cannabis by-products and currency from large-scale illegal cannabis production sites, cannabis extraction labs and residential dwellings. The PJFCET Unit executed 19 warrants in the Province of Ontario, six of which were in the Niagara Region. Their drug seizures were valued at CAD$112,769,464 and a total of CAD$363,915 was seized.

A Cambridge OPP officer also seized 282 cannabis plants from a driver on May 14, charging the driver with possession for the purpose of trafficking. The officer was alerted to the vehicle by an Automatic Licence Plate Reading noted an issue related to the driver of the commercial vehicle in question.