Nearly three years of drought that hammered the state's agriculture
industry also hit another group of farmers - the ones tending
Florida's marijuana crop.

Last year, police seized the fewest number of marijuana plants in the
19 years of Florida's effort to eradicate outdoor marijuana farming.

A preliminary report by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement
shows 39,219 outdoor marijuana plants were seized in 2000, says
Jennifer McCord, spokeswoman for the agency.

That doesn't include plants found at indoor growing operations.

In 1999, deputies, police and FDLE agents across the state found
56,838 marijuana plants growing outdoors, she says.

Police found fewer plants last year, even though they raided more
sites - 860 in 2000 compared to 573 in 1999.

``The numbers have nose dived in the last three years,'' says Dave
Broadway, former FDLE statewide coordinator for the outdoor marijuana
eradication program.

The drought's effect on illegal growers is exactly the same as
legitimate farmers, especially those with crops such as peanuts,
cotton and corn that aren't irrigated.

``Corn and soybean crops are practically down to nothing,'' says Bob
Blankenship, economic researcher for the state Department of

Last year, 18 percent of the 130,000 acres of cotton was left in the
field, the yield so low it was not worth harvesting, he says.

The dry weather is especially hard on marijuana, a plant that lacks
an extensive root system.

``A cannabis plant only has an 8-inch tap root,'' Broadway says. ``It
doesn't compete very well for water. It's hard to keep them alive.''

Rather than rely on rain to water their clandestine crop, marijuana
growers have to somehow irrigate their plants without being

``If farmers are having trouble irrigating a legitimate crop, think
how difficult it is if you have to do it in secret,'' Broadway says.

Under the harsh conditions, just about any marijuana plant growing
outdoors is a tended plant rather than one that sprouted from
discarded seeds.

``Nothing you find in Florida is ditch weed,'' Broadway says.

The crop of homegrown marijuana in Florida is usually higher in
quality than imported marijuana and can command higher prices.

``This does help keep the highest-quality cannabis off the street,''
Broadway says.

The FDLE uses what Broadway calls a conservative estimate of $1,000
per plant to place a value on the uprooted crop, meaning last year's
seizures were valued at $39.2 million.

The poor weather may be driving some outdoor growers inside, though
the numbers on indoor marijuana seizures have stayed fairly steady.

The Panhandle, with its open space and a population familiar with
agriculture, used to see the heaviest concentration of outdoor
marijuana growing.

That's shifted now to north Central Florida.

Last year, the most plants - 6,002 - were seized in Orange County.

In Hillsborough, police found 553 plants. Pinellas authorities seized
352, and officers in Polk found 40 plants, McCord says.

Newshawk: Sledhead
Pubdate: Wed, 21 Feb 2001
Source: Tampa Tribune (FL)
Copyright: 2001, The Tribune Co.
Author: Neil Johnson