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As harvest nears, thieves plague cannabis home growers

Cannabis plants can be big, if everything has gone well during the growing season. And as they get closer to harvest, they unavoidably get smellier.

Love them or hate them, the plants can be hard to hide.

That means outdoor home growers have to worry about not only mould, ill-timed rain and frost but also about thieves.

If all goes well, a large plant can yield 500 grams or so of dried flower. Legal, taxed marijuana goes for about $10 a gram, which means that a single successful plant, as it nears harvest, can be worth somewhere in the range of $5,000.

Unfortunately, it’s valuable to anyone who wants to steal it as well.

Jenna Blais came home on Monday to find her two outdoor plants in South Dundas, Ont., missing. She says they were a metre or so tall and not ready for harvest.

“It was kind of like a cartoon where you’re walking and think, ‘Something’s up’ and you turn and look, and they’re gone,” she says. “I stopped, I stopped everything. I called my parents, I called my boyfriend and said: ‘Did you harvest early? You didn’t tell me. What’s up?’ He said no and he said: ‘The plants weren’t stolen, were they?’

One of the plants was cut off at the stalk, and the other was roughly uprooted, she says.

“There was a trail of leaves from the left of where they were planted, and I could follow them up until a certain point. If I could have followed them all the way, I would have knocked on the people’s door and been like, ‘Uh, where’s my stuff?’ But it basically just trailed off.”

Growing weed outdoors is appealing — it needs little equipment, smells are kept out of the house, and the sun provides the light for free. But there’s a major downside.

As outdoor home growers move toward harvest, many across Canada are finding that somebody else beat them to it.

In B.C., plants can’t be visible from areas accessible to the public. In New Brunswick, outdoor plants can only be grown in a locked, fenced enclosure.

But some other provinces, like Ontario, have no restrictions on home grows beyond the federal ones: that plants must be grown in or near the grower’s home and that there must be no more than four plants in a household.

That makes things more convenient but also leaves growers much more vulnerable to theft.

WATCH: Cannabis is safer for long-term consumption than alcohol — expert

Not everybody’s property has a place that’s both discreet and a good place to grow large plants.

“We don’t really have a lot of privacy because you can see our home from the front and also from the side,” Blais says. “I thought that if I put them behind our garage, there wouldn’t be enough sun for them.

“You could definitely smell them. That’s probably how they figured it out, that I had some, because you could really smell them.”

Having your plants stolen is, at best, an expensive annoyance, but things can turn darker.

Early last Saturday morning, an Oshawa, Ont., homeowner who confronted suspected plant thieves in his backyard was stabbed. He suffered serious but non-life-threatening injuries, police say, and had to be taken to a trauma centre in Toronto, 50 kilometres away.

Can you claim a stolen cannabis plant on your home insurance policy?

Probably, says Jennifer DeFrenza of Surex, an insurance company.

But if your plants are at risk of getting stolen, there are some things to think about in advance, she says. Find out if your plants are covered, take lots of photos and keep your receipts.

And, yes, if the worst happens, you will need a police report.

“As with any type of theft from your home, cannabis plants should not be treated any differently when it comes to them being stolen,” she says. “I would advise making a police report as soon as possible.”

DeFrenza also says your grow should be legal in all respects for a claim to be paid out. The grey market may offer a far better choice of genetics, but sourcing from unsanctioned providers may lead to your insurance claim for stolen plants being turned down. So may growing more than four plants.

The insurance company also isn’t likely to pay anything close to the value of the plants.

“I have seen some companies cover up to a maximum of $100 per plant while others would have a limit of $125 per plant, which would work out to a maximum of $400 or $500 if you were to grow the maximum legal amount,” she says.

Blais misses her plants.

“I had two really beautiful plants,” she says. “They were large and green and lush, and I’m really sad that they’re gone. They weren’t ready 100 per cent for their harvest period so when I woke up and saw that they were gone it was a really, really hard thing for me.

WATCH: Know before you grow: Mike Kidd discusses growing pot at home

Police we talked to didn’t have specific numbers about how often cannabis theft was being reported to them, or advice about how to avoid having plants stolen.

“The Toronto Police Service does not have specifics on how to keep marijuana plants safe,” Const. Victor Kwong wrote in an e-mail.

“The same tips would apply to theft of roses or prized petunias: crime prevention through environmental design (lighting, visibility, fence, etc.) and being a vigilant neighbour.”

Ottawa police said they hadn’t seen a significant number. Several police officers we spoke to pointed out that it is hard to say if it’s a growing problem, since few people would have reported stolen plants when cannabis was still illegal.

“We don’t have any data about whether this has increased, or anything like that,” said London police Const. Sandasha Bough. “It’s something we would have to look at next year.”

London police have had 11 reports of stolen cannabis plants since legalization, she said.

An eastern Ontario man, who asked Global News to remain anonymous, has not had the two plants on his back porch stolen — and he’d like to keep it that way.

As harvest time nears, he’s taken the precautions he can to protect them by installing a security camera — “I find myself obsessively checking my camera feed multiple times a day,” he says — as well as a sign warning would-be thieves about the camera and a makeshift barricade made from a barbecue.

“There are maybe two or three weeks before I want to pull it down,” he says. “Now is when I start getting nervous because it’s looking good. I want to make it last as long as I can, and this is a perfect time for somebody to come and take it.”

He says the plants have an unmistakable smell that can be noticed on the other side of his house.

“The camera and the sign are more to keep the honest thieves away. ‘Well, they’ve got a camera, I’m going to look somewhere else.’ It doesn’t really prevent somebody from coming up with a mask and just taking it,” he says. “They totally could.”

Canberrans can now grow and smoke cannabis, though some questions remain unanswered

Canberrans can now grow dope, keep a small amount of the drug at home and smoke it without fear of committing a criminal offence … kind of.

Friday marked the first day that the ACT's controversial new cannabis legislation is in effect.

The laws have been widely described as the first in Australia to legalise the personal use of marijuana.

Yet that's not quite what the ACT legislation does: it simply removes criminal and financial penalties for possessing and using small amounts of the drug.

The Federal Government has made it clear that it opposes this shift and has threatened to use the Australian Federal Police (AFP) to enforce its own criminal laws against Canberrans who choose to light up.

What some of the changes in the capital mean in practice remains under a cloud.

What's legal now that wasn't before?

Technically, nothing. Growing and using cannabis is not legal; it's just no longer criminal. And, depending on the amount, it may not earn you a fine either.

The ACT Government said it was not encouraging people to use the drug, but it knows that they do. Instead, it wants to help them stop using it rather than drag them through the legal system over a joint.

Possessing under 50g of cannabis has been decriminalised in the ACT for a while, but the laws introduced on Friday go even further.

Previously, an adult caught with a plant would have faced a $160 fine under ACT law, now there is no fine.

How much can you grow, carry and use?

Canberrans who are 18 or older can grow up to two cannabis plants at their home. (Children can neither grow, carry nor use the drug.)

However, each household must have no more than four plants in total.

An adult can possess up to 150 grams of fresh, or "wet", marijuana, or 50 grams if it's dry (ready to smoke).

Where can you use it?

Canberrans can only grow plants at the premises they live in. They can neither use someone else's property nor let others use theirs.

Each plant must be grown naturally — in the garden or a pot — not hydroponically. Yet it can't be grown in a spot where passers-by can reach it.

Similarly, people can only smoke, eat or otherwise consume the drug in their home. It can't be used in public, even if no one else sees it being used.

Users of cannabis also need to ensure they don't expose children to it (or its smoke), nor can they store it where children can reach it.

And, of course, it can't be taken across the border into New South Wales, where possession of even small amounts remains a criminal offence.

Can you share a joint with a mate?

No. Nor can you give, share or sell plants or seeds.

Under ACT law, people who share a joint are committing the offence of supplying a prohibited substance. The maximum penalty is $80,000 and/or five years in jail.

Offer them a cup of tea and biscuits, instead.

How can you get seeds legally?

You can't. Several websites claim to be able to send marijuana seeds legally to Australian buyers. They're wrong.

During the legislative debate, a "seed repository" — a place Canberrans could access seeds legally — was considered but ultimately rejected.

The chair of the ACT Law Society's criminal law committee, Michael Kukulies-Smith, said this issue should be addressed.

"If you have some marijuana or you have a plant, someone, at some time, committed a criminal offence," he said.

"You didn't get the seeds from divine intervention, and whoever gave them to you committed the offence of trafficking."

What will the police do?

This is the main problem: no one knows.

ACT Policing is part of the AFP. This puts the local force in a bind, because it serves two masters — the Commonwealth and the ACT — each of which is giving different orders.

Federal Attorney-General Christian Porter says "it remains unlawful at Commonwealth law to possess cannabis in the ACT" — even small amounts.

"The expectation is that police enforce the law," he told the ABC late last year.

But no one genuinely expects the police to spend their time chasing small-time cannabis users.

When the laws were passed in September, Chief Police Officer Ray Johnson said his officers would focus instead on tackling organised criminals who sold large amounts of the drug.

Nonetheless, the risk remains: if you smoke dope in Canberra, a federal police officer could charge you, however unlikely that may be.

Mr Kukulies-Smith said this legal ambiguity was troubling.

"Individual police officers are going to have a lot of discretion, unfortunately," he said.

"If you have no prior convictions and aren't usually in trouble with the police, you've very unlikely to get into trouble.

"But if you have priors or you upset an officer, they might decide to use Commonwealth law instead.

"This isn't helpful. We don't really have any understanding of how the police's top brass are going to handle this."