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Marijuana Houses Blooming In Polk

Smokin Moose

Fallen Cannabis Warrior
LAKELAND - The numbers are striking.

Sheriff's deputies and police say they have raided and dismantled 34 marijuana "grow houses" in Polk County through the first 10 months of 2007. In all of 2006, that number was three.

What's going on? Law enforcement officials say criminal organizations based largely in Miami are choosing Polk County as a site for what amounts to marijuana export manufacturing plants.

The houses are producing high-quality, high-cost marijuana with elevated levels of THC, the drug that gives marijuana users their high.

And the producers are raising it for wholesale distribution. Little is ending up on Polk streets, where marijuana seized typically is of lower quality, said Polk sheriff's Lt. Steve Ward. "A lot of it seems to be headed for New York," Ward said.

It's a problem Polk didn't have as recently as a few years ago. And the money involved is large enough to finance sophisticated operations and spark violence.

Two grow houses, one in northeast Polk and one in the Lakeland area, were discovered soon after home invasions that left people injured. Both were in quiet neighborhoods not known for crime.

Orderly streets, with neighbors accustomed to minding their own business, suit grow operators, Ward said.

"They move in to some very nice neighborhoods. They'll buy or rent, and the first thing they'll do is throw up a privacy fence and renovate," he said.

In Polk, if detectives charge a homeowner or renter with "maintaining a dwelling for drug use and sale," they count the home as a grow house. Ward said detectives probably could charge anyone growing marijuana for personal use at home with maintaining a drug dwelling. But in practice, that doesn't happen, he said.

Indoor Farms

The houses detectives find are not owned and operated for personal use. Rather, they are indoor farms that use extensive fertilizer, lighting and hydroponic growing equipment and techniques to grow and harvest marijuana plants worth hundreds of thousands of dollars several times a year.

Ward traces the sudden influx into Polk County and other less urban areas across the state to increased law enforcement pressure on grow operations in the Miami area.

"The organizations there have been hit pretty hard, but they've been able to gain a foothold up here," he said.

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration echoes that assessment, saying on its Web site that "numerous grow operations have been seized in South Florida and Southwest Florida" and that indoor cultivation has spread north.

"Marijuana cultivation has become a lucrative business in Florida, especially indoor grow operations," DEA says. "These marijuana grows exist all over the state and are found in residential and rural areas in equal amounts."

To protect themselves, Ward said, organizations running marijuana operations have developed a cell-like structure meant to insulate members from investigators.

Ward said detectives have found that the people who buy the homes generally don't know the people who set up the wiring for heat and light or those who tend the plants. "They don't know each other, so we have a hard time getting to the main people," he said.

It also has proved difficult to put away the people detectives catch. They generally post bail and disappear, Ward said. Detectives are trying to counter that by turning to the federal legal system, which has generally harsher marijuana laws.

Industrial grow houses add a new dimension to the long-standing debate over whether marijuana should be legal, like alcohol or cigarettes.

Opponents of criminalization have long complained that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol or cigarettes and that making it illegal creates unnecessary criminal activity.

Prohibition Theory

Richard Cowan operates Marijuananews.com and is a board member of NORML, an organization that advocates legalizing recreational marijuana use for adults. Cowan calls indoor cultivation "an international issue," but argues that it's a logical result of criminalization.

Tough enforcement of outdoor growing and "mom and pop" indoor operations has made the trade more lucrative for criminal organizations, Cowen said.

"Prohibition works the way it always does. It drives up the price. The price has become high enough to justify the risk," he said.

Numbers are difficult to verify, but the DEA site indicates that marijuana demand is thought to be flat or down slightly in recent years.

DEA special agent Oscar Negron disputes the idea that enforcement is driving up the price, crediting the quality of the crop with that.

Source: Tampa Tribune (FL)
Copyright: 2007 The Tribune Co.
Contact: Send A Letter To The Editor - from TBO.com
Website: Tampa Bay News from The Tampa Tribune - Life. Printed Daily.
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