Tale of mas­sive grow-op in On­tario brings plenty of smoke, but lit­tle fire

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Greg Di Cresce

SMOKE of a lit­er­ary va­ri­ety, and plenty of it, wafts from the pages of Mark Coak­ley’s most re­cent true-crime ef­fort, Hid­den Har­vest: The Rise and Fall of North Amer­ica’s Big­gest Cannabis GrowOp. The Hamil­ton writer and for­mer lawyer puffs this fig­u­ra­tive smoke in the early go­ing of Hid­den Har­vest with, pre­sum­ably, the in­ten­tion of fiery rev­e­la­tions to fol­low. Un­for­tu­nately, no pay­off comes, leav­ing read­ers with the writ­ten equiv­a­lent of some­one blow­ing smoke in their faces. Coak­ley’s well-re­searched at­tempt to un­cover the forces at work in this mas­sive grow-op (hid­den in an aban­doned Mol­son brew­ery north of Toronto) pre­sents a wealth of nar­row, sur­face de­tails, but is poor on the in­te­rior pow­ers at play. It’s made all the more dis­ap­point­ing be­cause the stuff of this tale — the gang of colourful char­ac­ters, the au­dac­ity of the oper­a­tion and our so­ci­ety’s in­creas­ing am­biva­lence to­ward the il­le­gal­ity of cannabis — is so rich and timely. Hid­den Har­vest is a bit of a jum­bled mess; it reads as part bi­og­ra­phy, part grow-op for dum­mies and part notes of a court stenog­ra­pher. While the au­thor se­duc­tively in­tro­duces the work as the up­root­ing of “a cryptic nurs­ery of for­bid­den flow­ers,” of “a se­cret, beau­ti­ful, doomed gar­den in the heart of On­tario,” the nar­ra­tive style rather quickly slides into the less meta­phoric and more pedes­trian grooves of third-per­son, straight-ahead, long-form jour­nal­ism. Struc­turally, Hid­den Har­vest hews to a chrono­log­i­cal telling. The story is di­vided into two parts: the build-up and bust, which ba­si­cally takes place from late 2001 to early 2004, and the hunt and prose­cu­tion of the mas­ter­minds, which es­sen­tially con­cludes in 2011. The first part dishes out thin, breezy, bio­graph­i­cal sketches of those in­volved in the plan­ning, con­struc­tion and oper­a­tion of the grow-op. This part also of­fers a su­per­abun­dance of facts re­gard­ing the con­struc­tion of an in­dus­trial grow-op and the tech­ni­cal chal­lenges of farm­ing in­door cannabis. Lazy or disor­ga­nized crim­i­nals take note: this ain’t the gig for you. At its peak, the exbrew­ery out­side Bar­rie housed more than 21,000 grow­ing plants that pro­duced 4,860 kilo­grams (10,800 pounds) of weed for gross rev­enues of about $30 mil­lion a year. The sec­ond por­tion of the book tack­les the costly po­lice oper­a­tion to cap­ture and con­vict those atop this crim­i­nal oper­a­tion. Large chunks of this sec­tion in­clude tran­scripts of se­cret au­dio record­ings of an in­for­mant. If the reader hadn’t no­ticed in the first half, Coak­ley makes more overt his dis­taste for many of the so­cial and fi­nan­cial costs of polic­ing pot, al­though never aban­don­ing the third per­son to say this di­rectly. Hid­den Har­vest’s best in­sights are in the ordinariness of it all. There’s an odd fa­mil­iar­ity to the pro­duc­tion rou­tines at the grow-op, as there is with many of the con­cerns of those work­ing there, both em­ploy­ees and man­agers. It seems the truer crime story here is not so much in the smoke puffed up by talk of “cryptic nurs­eries” and “doomed gar­dens” — or in its record scale, or even in the thou­sands of pages of Cana­dian and U.S. court documents — but rather rolled up in the ev­ery­day lives of those drawn to this il­le­gal busi­ness. And it’s from there — from within those lives, not with­out — the story is prob­a­bly best told. Greg Di Cresce is a Win­nipeg jour­nal­ist and

erst­while crime re­porter.

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