A Cannabis Cop? Organized Crime Poses a Threat to Legal Cannabis
Andy Richards, CEO of Spire Secure Logistics, wore a police uniform for 34 years, but really, he’s always been on the side of cannabis.
Andy Richards was born in Scotland, a long way from where he was brought up in Vancouver, Canada. His dad was a university professor getting his doctorate in biochemistry at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. His mom was also an academic, with a Masters in biology. They all returned to Canada when Richards was one-year-old, with his older brother, Rob.
By his own account, Richards had a privileged upbringing on the West Side of Vancouver, not for want of anything. However, his parents were both alcoholics and his youth was filled with challenges that go along with living in that circumstance.
“People are complex and difficult to figure out,” says Richards, who found his escape through competitive sports, mostly swimming and taking a beating playing rugby. He coasted through high school in Vancouver with just passing grades, focused more on sports than his schoolwork, which drove his high-achieving academic parents nuts. Along with that, his many knee and shoulder injuries playing rugby didn’t thrill them either. “Fitness and sports were a way to deal with my dysfunctional family,” he says. His older brother found less healthy outlets which included alcohol, drugs, and eventually some run-ins with the law. Andy got to know the police officers in high school and admired what they did for the public.
It was also through rugby that Richards found strong mentors. He could have gone down a bad path, before recovering, like his brother, but instead he threw himself into physical activity, which was to be a benefit in his life’s work. He played rugby at the UBC in Vancouver, which allowed him to travel the world and meet friends that were gravitating towards law enforcement.
He earned his Bachelor’s Degree in education, but soon realized that law enforcement was his calling. Upon graduation, he applied for and was accepted into the Vancouver Police force. “As you can imagine, this was not a well received career choice by my parents, but ultimately they came around and were supportive and even proud,” recalls Richards. Later, he went on to earn a Masters Degree in criminal justice from the University of the Fraser Valley.
“I knew I wanted to do something positive to contribute to society. I’ve always rooted for the underdog and couldn’t stand bullies. Being on the police force gave me a chance to continue my physical activity, but also offered a rewarding and exciting adventure. I wanted a more varied and more widely significant role. I don’t have a single regret of the professional path I chose. I’ve had a great impact.”
There was an interesting paradigm for Richards. “In 34 years on the police force, I never arrested anyone for simple possession of marijuana. I saw that low level level activity through a different lens of policing. I had discretion around minor infractions and drug arrests. Organized crime was where the law enforcement effort needed to be focused.”
When people say organized crime in the United States, most people think of the mob. In Canada, it usually means the Hells Angels motorcycle gang. They were, and still are, dealing in cannabis in British Columbia known as BC Bud. They use the crop to raise cash, exporting to the U.S. in exchange for cocaine and meth to sell and distribute in Canada according to Richards, 59.
“There’s no medical benefits to anyone by bringing these dangerous drugs into Canada and as organized crime grows, its ongoing effects are harmful to society. I’ve never viewed cannabis on the extreme end of the harm spectrum and now we know it’s medical benefits,” he says.
Richards knows a thing or two about fighting organized crime. He served on the Vancouver Police force from 1981 to 1999 and specialized in Hells Angels investigations, primarily into the group’s commercialized BC bud. He was the first one to bring evidence forward to convict a cell of the Vancouver Hells Angels, an active network of multiple cocaine traffickers and cannabis growers. He conducted surveillance and legal wiretaps and took enforcement action regularly. On one day in 1997, under Project Nova, as the sting was called, he served 21 search warrants of active illegal marijuana growers. “We made a lot of arrests. It was the first time the police had such an impact on organized crime in one day.”
This enforcement doesn’t come without its danger. Richards and his police partner, whose name was on the warrants, received threatening calls and were followed home. Richards arrested a full patched member of the Hells Angels club that was using what cops called the “green side,” or cannabis production, to fund the “white side,” cocaine operation. They caught him building an indoor grow operation in his basement.
According to Richards, this organized crime group would export the cannabis to import other drugs to sell and distribute in Canada, like cocaine from Los Angeles or other countries like Mexico, through the cartel. So there was two revenue streams from the green side and white side. This was in the 1980-1990s and it’s less so now in the last ten years as the move to legal and regulated cannabis has happened in Canada and the U.S. However, organized crime, including the Hells Angels, continue to operate illegally in the cannabis business.
“It will be interesting to see how things shake out with organized crime and the cannabis black market. The Hells Angels over time have developed a strong sense of entitlement, even in the gray market we have been operating under. They will not be inclined to divest of that income. They remain strong players in the black market. It’s naive to think that there’s a legal solution to the black market operating in Canada. There’s been too much money made over time. There’s still tremendous black market demand from international markets where cannabis is not legal,” says Richards. He points out that it’s easy to exploit with low risk—no age verification, no product testing, and no taxes to be paid.
“Organized crime is well positioned to take advantage of the vulnerability in the new legal cannabis regulatory space that’s coming to Canada in 2018. They will look to further infiltrate the cannabis industry. The money is too tempting and they will not want to give up market share,” cautions Richards.
He says the British Columbia Hells Angels are still the top organized crime threat in Canada because they are among the wealthiest and most sophisticated in the world. According to Richards, in Canada, it’s all about making money. Richards has stared down members, testifying in court and presenting expert evidence.
In 1999, Richards left the Vancouver Police force to join the new Organized Crime Agency to head the Motorcycle Gang Enforcement Unit and spent the next nine years focusing on high level organized crime, mostly involving the Hells Angels criminal investigations, which always involved illegal cannabis production.
The father of four children, Richards, whose wife and oldest daughter are also police officers in Vancouver, retired a couple of years ago as a Deputy Police Chief in Greater Vancouver, after 34 years in law enforcement. His rugby days are over and he nurses his body a bit, but still cycles, works out, and hikes to stay healthy. He rides a motorcycle as well, in what he calls Harley therapy. He’s also taken to trying CBDs and is very much an advocate for medical cannabis and oils. He believes cannabis has medicinal benefits and wants to help the burgeoning industry stay safe.
While sitting on a police friend’s deck over a charred piece of meat and wine last year, the idea for Spire Secure Logistics was born. Who was going to protect the legal cannabis growers and legal users, be it in medical or recreational, from organized crime? Richard’s soon to be business Partner, Jeff Meyers, knew they had the operating skills and experience to assist the public, law enforcement, regulators, and companies to keep legal cannabis out of the hands of organized crime and the youth of Canada.
As the Canadian legal cannabis space transitions towards legal adult use, Richards and Meyers have recognized that the existing security industry is focused solely on Health Canada compliance for LP applicants and sustained security and risk mitigation have taken a backseat in the race to obtain a License to Produce. They are committed to ensuring safety and security through risk reduction while establishing long-term cost savings relationships with their clients. They are working in the areas of compliance, information technology, buildout design, and security program implementation, designing security programs and solutions for the legal cannabis sector.
Assuming adult use of recreational cannabis is legalized in Canada in mid-2018, cannabis sales are expected to reach $4.6B by 2019 and $7.4B by 2024. The export market could represent an additional $0.5B to $1.5B at minimum, with potential for much greater global growth on the basis of Canada’s strong international cannabis brand according to PI Financial.
“The threat to legal cannabis in Canada will once again come from organized crime with the Hells Angels a primary participant. They will look to acquire any entry into the market at no cost. Cannabis is a valuable commodity and could be subject to a truck hijacking from New Brunswick to Ontario by a lower level gang member. This product would find its way directly into the black market. They will look to exploit any weakness of legal cannabis. They are famous for their broad network of friends and relatives that assist with insider info around large licensed cannabis facilities, transporting CBD oils for example,” cautions Richards.
According to Richards, the group will look for a way to get internal intelligence by co-opting cannabis company employees to learn the inner workings, schedules of transports, for example. Another way to infiltrate is for a gang member to gain an ownership arrangement where a high level figure gets an associate with a clean criminal record to be an owner in a licensed facility in a large cannabis company that’s generating profits and income. They want a piece of the multiple billion dollar pie, points out Richards.
He’s concerned that legal cannabis growers will be starting next year unaware of the threat or are not inclined to spend capital for security for cannabis product facilities. He also warns that organized crime is not disinclined to use violence as a business tool.
There seems to be a lot of organized crime waiting to exploit the legalization of cannabis use coming to Canada. “Sadly, I think there will be bad news stories surrounding this issue in the coming years. If business does not go the way they want, violence could happen. They don’t like to lose or be double crossed. Bad things could happen in Canada as a result of organized crime with fully legal cannabis use, but we are here to prevent that,” says Richards.
It appears that Andy Richards is back in the game to tackle crime again and has found his second calling.
© 2018 by Bill Bongiorno
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