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Indoor marijuana farms go high-tech for high profit

By THOMAS LAKE
Published May 14, 2007


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Somewhere in your town, a secret garden grows.

It is high-tech, lucrative and illegal. And it could be right next door.

Look for the warning signs. Strange new wires sprout from the electrical box. Massive air conditioners run day and night, even when no one is home. And those "lawn clippings" in the garbage smell like the Grateful Dead.

Indoor marijuana labs have replaced methamphetamine labs as the neighborhood drug factories of the moment, Lt. Robert Sullivan of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office said at a news conference Tuesday. Deputies raided 10 indoor growing operations in the first quarter this year - more than in all of 2006.

In the past, Sullivan said, more marijuana farmers grew their crops outdoors for better yield and higher potency. But after airborne raids crippled many of those farms, a new generation of white- collar growers used technology to move the trade indoors. Many of the labs are in middle-class neighborhoods.

And the quality is the same or better than before: The new growers use a system of artificial lights and automatic feeding troughs to generate a crop that can fetch up to $2, 000 a pound in Florida and perhaps $7, 000 in the Northeast.

Some of the plants are so potent and bursting with resin that Sullivan said there are stories of drug agents in other counties getting contact highs during raids.

One of Pasco's latest raids took place May 2 at 18923 Rolling Oaks Drive in Hudson, in the Rolling Oaks Estates subdivision just south of the Hernando County line. An investigator got a tip from the electric company about a tampered meter box and unusually high energy consumption. These can sometimes be telltale signs of marijuana labs because the grow lights - and the air conditioning required to counteract their considerable heat - need electricity.

Deputies say they found 94 plants inside the house, as well as lights and fans and rolling papers. They arrested the man who lives there on charges of cultivation of marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia and theft of utilities.

His name: Jason Robert Stoner.

Stoner, 31, went free Friday on $3, 500 bond. He declined to comment Tuesday.

Sullivan said at least one major grower claimed that the plants were for his personal use.

"Guess what, " Sullivan told the reporters. "With 100 plants, you and your entire family could smoke for the rest of your lives."

Thomas Lake can be reached at tlake@sptimes.com or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6245.

[Last modified May 13, 2007, 20:24:30]


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