Bud Men

Despite the risks, local pot farmers have taken homegrown high-tech

Local defense lawyer Vincent Flynn, who is representing an indoor grower busted in Dade, argues that marijuana growers remain a mostly innocuous bunch whose only conscious criminal acts involve the drug itself.

"In my experience marijuana people have always been much gentler, more honest people [than cocaine traffickers]," says Flynn. "I've never seen any so-called big organizations of marijuana growers. If anything, the people who [smuggled] it in were more sophisticated. Grow houses, by definition, are self-contained. These are tight-knit groups, people who know each other from the high-school wrestling team or a fraternity."

Marijuana growers don't generally fit any particular ethnic or socioeconomic profile. Local raids during the past two years have uncovered hydroponics rigs in handsome ranch houses in southwest Dade, in duplexes in Little Havana, in bungalows in Liberty City. The vast majority of growers are male, but that's about the only way to narrow down the demographics. Lieutenant Wilcox of Metro-Dade says that what he's seen reflects the diversity of the county's population: a majority of Hispanic growers, with plenty of Anglos and blacks as well.

No hydroponic setup is illegal in and of itself. In addition to mail-order from companies that advertise in High Times (the monthly chronicle of pot culture) and various gardening publications, marijuana growers can buy everything they need from local retailers. A staffer at the Fort Lauderdale location of Gold Coast Hydroponic Greenhouse, the oldest of the store's three outlets in South Florida, says there's no special combination of lights, nutrient fluid, and cloning solution that is more appropriate for marijuana than anything else. "It all works for anything," says Dave, who declined to give his last name. "Hydroponics is not for any specific plant." He describes the policy for dealing with everyone who states or implies they are looking to purchase equipment for a marijuana grow: "They're asked to leave the store immediately. I don't know what the penalties would be [for telling someone how to grow pot], and I don't want to know. That's our bottom line, and it's a hard line. Otherwise, one of us will end up in jail, and they could close the store down."

Perhaps not surprisingly, Gold Coast's customers tend not to mention their crops at all. "In this business, 99.9 percent of the customers know what they want," Dave says. "They don't ask questions. The only real question I get is, 'How much?'"

It's just after 8:00 a.m. on December 5, and by all accounts the twelfth annual NORML Key West Criminal Defense Seminar is going much more smoothly than did its immediate precursor. The fruit-and-bagel buffet is ready; the registration table, while still folded up near the conference room door, is at least accounted for; two NORML volunteers are seated on the floor at the entrance busily sliding attendees' name tags into plastic holders; and the T-shirts arrived via FedEx last night.

"The T-shirts got lost in the mail last year," says St. Pierre, an earnest, bespectacled 31-year-old whose short black hair is shot with gray on the sides. NORML's deputy director then returns to his task of shepherding the process along, scurrying back and forth between the soon-to-be-erected registration area and the Grand Cayman meeting room of the casually elegant Pier House resort.

All the while conventioneers are arriving in spurts and trickles. Like their grower counterparts, most of these high-powered defense lawyers are men. All of them are white, and the greater number of them are dressed for Key West -- T-shirts and shorts are the norm. A handful are dressed for court, with polished shoes, tailored suits, and carefully groomed hair. These nattily attired folks, it turns out, are the day's scheduled speakers.

It could almost be any gathering of prominent lawyers. Exchanges of hugs and handshakes are punctuated with "Good morning, counselor"s and "Third year I've been here"s. Among today's arrivals are such notables as Hunter S. Thompson's personal attorney, the Libertarian Party's 1992 vice presidential candidate, and the coauthor of Proposition 215, California's recently passed medical-marijuana law.

Still, though the ultimate tip-off, the scent of recently ignited cannabis, waits until exactly 11:40 a.m. to make its presence known in the hall, there are plenty of overt clues that this assemblage of attorneys has a particular affinity for defending those who have run afoul of marijuana statutes. The smattering of ponytails and full beards is one hint; the occasional shirt or hat woven of hemp fiber is another. Several T-shirts offer rallying cries for the pot-legalization politics of NORML. (The best of the bunch reads: "D.A.R.E. -- I turned in my parents and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.")

Boston attorney Michael Cutler enters clothed in full pot-lawyer regalia: baggy shorts, a NORML baseball cap, a button-down hemp shirt open over a T-shirt bearing the image of a snake coiled around a marijuana leaf under the slogan "Don't Tread on Me." As his colleagues greet him warmly, the six-foot-plus defense lawyer makes a solemn declaration: "Let me tell you, freedom is wonderful," he says, smiling. "I have seen the Promised Land." Cutler has just returned from the ninth annual Cannabis Cup, the famous (or infamous) Amsterdam conference and competition for marijuana growers sponsored by High Times magazine.

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