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Indoor Pot Farms A Growing Trend


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The recent arrests of two men accused of running large indoor marijuana-growing operations in York County is the latest example of what police say is a trend for growers to buy "shell" homes in rural areas.

The innocuous rural locations allow growers to produce year-round crops and operate sophisticated cultivating operations that are difficult for neighbors or police to detect.

These operations are a far cry from the old practice of finding a remote stretch of public land, planting a lot of seedlings and letting Mother Nature do most of the work until harvest time.

Modern growers are virtually professional horticulturists, investing thousands of dollars into growth lights, plant food and automated feeding and maintenance systems. Tens of thousands more are poured into real estate and elaborate heating, ventilation, soundproofing and power systems to conceal their crops.

"On the outside it appears like suburbia, but on the inside they are producing a crop every 90 days," said Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency.

In 2006, officials seized 2,356 plants in 38 indoor growing operations throughout the state, McKinney said. The year before, officials discovered 71 indoor growing operations, seizing 2,175 plants. The numbers are significant considering there wasn't a lot of talk about major indoor growing operations -- involving hydroponics, automatic lights and crops of hundreds or thousands of plants -- even five years ago, he said. The trend was established by gangs in Canada, he said, who would buy homes or take over abandoned industrial sites to set up large growing operations.

"It's just a recent phenomenon that we're now seeing those same patterns in the United States," McKinney said.

The recent York County arrests had all the earmarks of those more sophisticated operations. One suspect owned the two properties in Lyman and Arundel, and lived in one of the homes with his family while growing marijuana in a hidden underground chamber.

The buildings looked normal but contained expensive and complex wiring, ventilation, soundproofing, watering and growing systems. The electricity that powered the operations was diverted from power lines before it reached meters so the high energy use wouldn't be detected, and a diesel generator with four 275-gallon tanks held fuel oil. There was also evidence that the growers were using grafting and rooting systems to cultivate further crops.

"We are continually coming across individuals that are producing drugs that they would typically market in a more urban area -- in Massachusetts or Connecticut or New York -- and they are traveling to peddle their drugs," McKinney said.

York County Sheriff Maurice Ouellette said such operations are definitely on the rise in the state, particularly in rural areas where there are fewer local police to investigate. Criminals also take advantage of cheaper real estate and the privacy that comes with a remote location.

Another benefit is the quality of the product. Investigators say the carefully tended indoor plants have a higher level of the active ingredient in marijuana, so growers can sell for a higher price.

"(Indoor growing operations) are very time-consuming to investigate," said Sanford Police Sgt. Craig Anderson, who supervises the drug agency's efforts in York County. "The outdoor operations are usually stumbled upon by hunters or hikers or people out for a walk in the woods; but with indoor operations, it comes down to somebody knowing about it and letting us know."

McKinney said the Maine DEA has increased its assistance to local agencies "dramatically" in recent years for such investigations, but it still isn't enough to stay on top of the problem.

"The system is somewhat maxed out," he said. "Drug activity is increasing, but we don't have the resources to confront that."

Federal funding for the state agency has dropped 63 percent in recent years. The Legislature has made up the difference but not increased the funding, leaving the agency at a flat funding level while crime increases, McKinney said.

"Rural drug crime in general is a serious issue," he said. "There are such finite enforcement resources in the rural area."

Source: Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram
Author: Noel K. Gallagher
Copyright: 2005, Blethen Maine Newspapers, Inc.
Website: MaineToday.com | Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram
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