Weed Warriors

Hydroponic marijuana production is growing up

Last summer, Miami-Dade Police Sgt. Mauricio "Mo" Smith, a veteran of the cocaine cowboy Eighties and an expert on heroin, was shocked to discover a Kendall house where four men were raising more than 30 five- to six-foot-tall marijuana plants. A suburban hydroponics lab — that's routine. But this was located in an area so famously inhabited by Miami-Dade Police that it's nicknamed "Copland." "There were green-and-white cop cars all around the place," says Smith, shaking his head at the brazenness. "The house was within sight of a cop's house." But then he added pensively: "It's everywhere now. Lower-class, middle-class, upper-class, Kendall, Opa-locka, Cocoplum."

Last month, less than an hour after inspecting another lab, Smith, a beefy fellow with a shaved head who looks like a bulky James Carville, sipped iced tea at the Cheesecake Factory in Dadeland Mall. Sitting next to him was an undercover narcotics cop who requested he be referred to only as Henry S.

Smith heads a five-member unit that investigates a wide range of major narcotics crimes — from crack to Ecstasy. But he was here to discuss the rash of pot busts over the past six months in seemingly innocuous suburban areas such as Coral Gables and Kendall. Imported Latin American or Caribbean weed has largely been replaced by local hydroponic varieties, engineered by growers requiring little space and often drawing less attention. "We sometimes visit three a day. If we didn't have other crimes, our unit could spend all our time on growhouses. We could have ten more units working on this full-time," Smith says.

In nondescript neighborhoods all over the county, growers are combining heavily fertilized water, powerful lights, high heat, humidity, and even plant genetics to create marijuana with sky-high THC levels. "Back in the Nineties, the Colombian Gold and Jamaica Red — that used to be the Rolls Royce," Smith says. "But now that stuff is being sold mainly as nickel bags." Or, as Henry S. puts it: "It's like the difference between Beringer and Dom Perignon."

But why would Miami Vice — a unit that also deals with crack, crystal meth, cocaine, and heroin — give a hoot about homegrown pot? To this, Smith succinctly responds, "It's about money and minimizing risk," before explaining the seductive economics that are driving the explosion. Start-up costs are about $40,000 for a four-house rotation. This includes rent, hydroponic lamps (about $1700 each), air conditioning, and labor. ("You have to pay some knucklehead as a caretaker.") Then there are buds, cloning, fertilizer costs. If you have 60 plants in a house, that's worth about $120,000. "By the end of the first year," he says, "you're making more than a million, easy."

With so much money involved, Smith says, collateral crime is inevitable. This past March, a man driving in Carol City with his wife and child was shot at and driven off the road. Miami-Dade Police, suspicious of the man's behavior, dispatched a unit to his house, where they found a team of men busily carting out freshly cropped marijuana. "It's grower against grower," says Henry S. "He was scared they were going to go after his plants." And although the MDPD doesn't keep stats yet, Smith says, the growhouses are increasingly linked to other crimes such as home invasions and robberies. This past winter, the heist of more than $180,000 in nickels from an armored truck had ties to the underground marijuana economy. While cops were seizing 88 pot plants at a Redland house, they discovered the missing nickels — 45,000 pounds' worth.

Smith is unsurprised by the collateral crime. "Some of these guys are making money, as much as or more than a midlevel coke dealer." But unlike the flashy coke dealers of old, Smith says, the growers' modus operandi is meticulously low-key. Jorge Diez, who lives on the pleasant, tree-lined Zamora Avenue in Coral Gables, was shocked to wake up the morning of July 9 to see a phalanx of cops carting 175 marijuana plants from his neighbor's ranch house. "I never suspected anything," says Diez, who lived next to the grower, Lazaro Solares, for more than two years. "They were conspicuously inconspicuous. I never knew the guy or what he did."

The guerrilla style of pot production is challenging to narcotics officers. Contrary to widespread assumptions, cops can't simply call Florida Power and Light to identify heavy-duty power users. "At least 85 percent of the growers cheat the high FPL costs," estimates Maj. Charles Nanney, head of the MDPD's narcotics division. They often use electrical bypasses to circumvent the meters. Besides, FPL doesn't provide usage information to the police. (Because of the complex electrical operations, one way of detecting growers has been by tracking home fires; this past May, Miami-Dade cops busted a Redland man with $400,000 in plants after his operation triggered a life-threatening blaze.)

One of the most common ways of tracking growhouses is the most fundamental, Smith says: "You smell it." The odor of hydroponics operations is distinct. Smith likens it to the smell of dozens of gardenias.

But some growers who used to simply keep their shades down are now covering windows with drywall and then adding faux windows to prevent odor leaks. Others operate in airtight, temperature-controlled 48-foot tractor-trailers. And recently Smith's unit has been increasingly spotting growers literally going underground, digging into the coral, to conceal and cultivate their bud. "It's a cat-and-mouse game," Smith says.

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