In recent weeks, a series of raids throughout Canada produced record illegal-drug busts that prove what experts have forecast for some time now. Canada's marijuana dealers have converted so many suburban homes and abandoned warehouses into pot farms, that the US$8.5 billion market is now three times the size of the nation's biggest legal crop - wheat. Canada's annual pot harvest is as much as 5.3 million pounds, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), with seizures rising eightfold since 1993. Seizures at the US border tripled in two years to 11,183 kg in 2003, according to the latest data from the US National Drug Intelligence Centre. The Organised Crime Agency of British Columbia estimates there are 20,000 marijuana grow operations, or grow-ops, in the greater Vancouver area. 'Marijuana accounts for up to 5 per cent of the GDP in the province,' said Stephen Easton, professor of economics at Simon Fraser University. On September 19, RCMP officers seized more than 19,000 marijuana plants from a remote area in eastern New Brunswick, one of the largest finds ever in Canada. Only days before, Ontario police broke up a huge outdoor marijuana farm north of Toronto. Neighbours became suspicious because the Chinese family who had moved in earlier in the year did not employ any tractors. Even in Vancouver's glamorous residential area of West Point Grey, pot plants are spreading, according to the police. At the end of June, narcotics officers raided a home in Belmont Avenue and discovered the largest drug lab on record in the city. The house was owned by Hutchison Whampoa boss Canning Fok Kin-ning, who said he was not aware of the situation. The fast-growing business is tightly controlled by criminal gangs. In July, the RCMP conducted a massive raid on the Hells Angels East End Chapter and arrested 18 people. The drug bust was part of Project Epandora, a 23-month operation that led to the discovery of two crystal meth labs, 20 kg of methamphetamine, 20 kg of cocaine and 70 kg of marijuana. According to the RCMP, the majority of the grow-ops are operated by Vietnamese organised crime groups. Vietnamese growers cultivate smaller numbers of plants in multiple locations. Ethnic Vietnamese are frequently used as house sitters at indoor locations and paid either in the form of money or drugs. A huge majority of the busts in Vancouver involved Vietnamese 'farmers', said the municipal police. Grow-ops on a mom-and-pop scale sell the drugs to gangs, which typically market them in pound blocks for about US$2,200 each, much of it stuffed into bags or loaded on to trucks for export over Canada's 5,525-mile border with the US, police say. In July, police discovered a 110-metre tunnel crossing the border between Langley in British Columbia and Lynden in the state of Washington. Days later, the RCMP arrested BC Marijuana Party leader Marc Emery, who sold marijuana seeds over the internet, on a warrant issued by the US Drug Enforcement Administration. While Canada collected taxes from Emery, the US pushed for his extradition. The illegal border trade has caused political irritations between the two countries. While the US maintains a vigorous opposition to the marijuana business, Canadian authorities are blamed for turning a blind eye to the drug's cultivation and possession. Canadian Premier Paul Martin wants to legalise marijuana and according to polls, two-thirds of Canadians favour outright legalisation. While US growers who cultivate 1,000 or more plants face a minimum of 10 years in prison, their counterparts in Ontario, Canada's most populous province, get about 18 months, according to government figures. Mr Martin's efforts to decriminalise marijuana are a bigger threat to US relations than the softwood-lumber dispute, according to a Compas Research poll of 146 Canadian chief executives in March.