By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
By Frank Owen
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Adds Susan Benton, sheriff of Highlands County in central Florida: "The state is growing a tremendous amount of marijuana. We are supplying the whole East Coast. It's all over the place, from the rural areas with five-acre tracts to regular subdivisions near kids and schools."
On a rainy Miami afternoon, a raspy-voiced Cuban-American in his late thirties named Santino tends to 13 six-foot-high potted marijuana plants in full bloom. He resembles a young James Caan — and shares the filmic mafioso's disdain for law enforcement. "The cops love saying that one plant equals a pound," Santino says mockingly. "That's a bunch of bullshit. They say that to justify their big budgets for taking us down. But I only count buds."
He pours half a teaspoon of Flora Nova liquid plant food and a teaspoon of a yellow powder he calls "cha-ching" into a gallon jug of water, and then repeats the procedure with two other jugs. The mixture turns a light greenish-brown. Then, with Don Burke-like finesse, he feeds his plants while explaining that three-quarters of one plant (i.e., the stem, the five-pointed fan leaves, and the roots) are worthless. "If I can squeeze two pounds from this batch, I'm good," he says. "It also helps that I always get the best bud available."
Two high-pressure, 1000-watt Hydrolux sodium bulbs drown the high-grade herbage in sizzling ultraviolet light. The room has a golden glow. Like the lights discovered in the Lehigh bust, the bulbs are connected to two portable electric ballasts that produce a low-pitch hum. A large square piece of sheetrock covers the only window in the room. The entire setup, from the grow lights to the enhanced plant food, costs less than $1500, Santino explains. His monthly electric bill averages about $300, enough to fly under the radar of nosy utility workers and undercover police surveillance.
Santino's relatively small operation is confined to a tiny bedroom inside a townhouse somewhere on the western fringe of Miami-Dade. Santino doesn't own the property. He doesn't live there either. But his pot-smoking buddies do. Tom and wife Nora, who have no children, rent the room to Santino. "They get free herb and a share of the profits," he says. "It's the perfect setup because they have lived here for years, and the neighbors know who they are. To everyone around here, they are just another happily married couple."
Tom is an affable yet reserved fellow with sleepy hazel eyes. "He's the brains," Tom says sheepishly. "I'm just the caretaker." Santino and Tom were born and raised in Miami. They attended the same private elementary school but went to different high schools. Neither graduated from college. They maintained a close friendship fueled by their connoisseurs' love for good pot. Two years ago they traveled to Amsterdam for the annual High Times Cannabis Cup, which attracts pot farmers from all over the globe to compete for the best-tasting bud.
In many ways, Santino is like the male version of Nancy Botwin, the suburbanite-mom-turned-pot-dealer on Showtime's TV series Weeds. He divorced his wife four years ago and shares custody of his 10-year-old daughter and six-year-old son (whom he doesn't allow near the marijuana) with his ex. He lives in a gated residential community in Northeast Miami-Dade and drives a late-model Lexus sports sedan.
Like most pot growers and dealers, Santino got into the business after purchasing weed not only for himself but also for friends and acquaintances. "When you're buying bud at retail cost, there is not much profit margin there," Santino says. "So here I was buying quarter-pounds, half-pounds that I'd split up with other people. Yet I was the one assuming all the risk for a very little reward."
On the retail market he can sell an ounce of homegrown bud for $400 to $500. Half an ounce goes for $200 to $250. "The only way to make money is to grow your own and cut out the middleman," he says.
Prices have gone up 20 percent since the recent crackdown, he says. "It's getting expensive."
The Highlands County Sheriff's Office is one of the smallest police departments in the state, employing 95 officers to protect 87,336 residents spread out over 1029 square miles in the center of Florida's peninsula. Despite its size, the department is one of the state's most progressive, led by Florida's first elected woman sheriff: Susan Benton, a 58-year-old Miami native and Democrat who won the seat in 2004.
The Monsignor Pace High School grad walked the cop beat in Miami-Dade County for five years before relocating 166 miles north to Sebring, the most populous city in Highlands. There, after a seven-year career sidetrack as a political aide and state protection officer, she rose through the ranks from deputy to lieutenant. Today Benton has become one of the most informed top law enforcement officials on Florida's grow house industry.
"It has the characteristics of major organized crime," Benton says. "Just about every case, we have seen Hispanics of Cuban descent from the Miami/Hialeah area. Many of them seem to know each other."
There is no doubt that indoor marijuana manufacturing is on the rise in Florida. In Miami-Dade, cops last year arrested 492 suspected farmers and seized 15,749 pot plants, the most of all counties. Broward produced the third-largest crop share at 3021 plants, and Palm Beach was fourth with 1938 plants. (St. Lucie County was number two.)