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Tampa Bay is a leader in marijuana growing

Urban, indoor growers increasingly are making up for crop losses from interdiction and drought, authorities say.

By MIKE BRASSFIELD

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 24, 2000


Over the past two decades, Florida authorities have uprooted a million marijuana plants, even as more pot growers moved inside to avoid prying eyes and erratic weather.

Statewide, police found only half as many pot plants as usual last year because a drought put a dent in the marijuana crop. But Pinellas and Hillsborough counties saw a rise in the number of plants seized and growers arrested.

Florida, and Tampa Bay in particular, remain hotbeds of indoor marijuana production. In 1999, for the second year in a row, Pinellas County was second only to Miami-Dade County in this particular field. Hillsborough was fourth in the state.

"I think the statistics speak for themselves," said Capt. Gary Billing, head of the Pinellas sheriff's narcotics squad.

Last year, police found cultivated marijuana at nearly 600 sites, indoor and outdoor, in 61 of 67 Florida counties, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. They arrested 466 people. They encountered no booby traps and no violence, although they did confiscate 89 guns.

The final tally -- nearly 57,000 pot plants seized -- was hardly a bumper crop for Florida. That's slightly more than police found the previous year, in 1998. But Florida authorities typically find more than 100,000 marijuana plants a year.

Authorities say there's no lack of effort; they've searched harder than ever, especially with aerial spotters in National Guard helicopters.

"We've been training spotters in the state for the past 10 years," said FDLE Agent Dave Broadway.

Nasty weather was behind the decline in pot production, Broadway said. The drought that hurt Florida's corn, hay and watermelon crops did the same to marijuana.

Rural North Florida woodlands, especially in the Panhandle, have the most marijuana plants each year. But urban indoor growers are harvesting more and more of Florida's homegrown cannabis.

Statewide, police raided 211 indoor sites last year. Dozens were in the Tampa Bay area.

Overall, Pinellas authorities found 1,448 pot plants in 1999, more than half at indoor sites. That's an increase from 922 the previous year. They arrested 45 people, a jump from 34 in 1998.

Hillsborough investigators found 23 marijuana plots and arrested 24 growers last year, nearly double the amounts from 1998.

Broadway says Pinellas County's high numbers don't necessarily mean more pot is grown here compared with other urban areas. Instead, aggressive police may be catching more growers.

Federal studies show that most marijuana in this country is imported here via Mexico.

But the sophisticated indoor setups that are prevalent in Florida produce higher-grade cannabis, according to the FDLE's annual report on marijuana eradication. The FDLE calls homegrown Florida marijuana as "a superior product."

"The grade of domestically produced marijuana in Florida far exceeds the quality of marijuana of foreign origin," the report says.

It's not a sales pitch -- it's a warning. The marijuana that teenagers might experiment with today isn't quite the same drug that parents may remember from their own youth.

Marijuana's active ingredient is THC. In 1980, THC levels in commercial-grade marijuana averaged 1.8 percent. Today it's 3.2 percent, the FDLE says.

One cultivation technique produces a potent, rare and pricey kind of pot called sinsemilla. Ten years ago, THC levels in sinsemilla averaged 6 percent. Now they commonly exceed 12 percent.

Last year, a sinsemilla sample taken from an indoor growing operation in Sunrise had a THC level of 26.8 percent, the highest ever recorded in Florida.

"You're not talking about the same thing the folks were smoking at Woodstock," said FDLE spokesman Al Dennis. "The purity level is so much higher than ever before. This is powerful stuff."

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