Miami's grow houses

In early June 2008, a 21-year-old Kendall man we'll call Johnny Greenthumb wanted to cash in on Florida's largest cash crop. He rented a house on SW 62nd Street at 151st Court. Inside one of the three bedrooms, Greenthumb installed a dozen 1,000-watt light bulbs that hung from metal covers attached to the ceiling. He connected the bulbs to six transformers on the floor, next to a portable air conditioner and a carbon fan filter.

A stocky young man with brown eyes, cropped brown hair, and a tattoo of Jesus on his left arm, Greenthumb filled 20 pots with soil. In each pot, he dug a hole and deposited a baby marijuana plant, no taller than six inches. He placed the plants under the lights and flipped on the transformers. An artificial glow as bright as the grueling Miami afternoon sun filled the room. If all went well, Greenthumb would be harvesting bushels of high-grade marijuana buds in 90 days. It didn't.

On June 9, around 9 p.m., Miami-Dade Police narcotics detectives acting on a tip stopped by Greenthumb's grow house. The cops "heard humming sounds emanating from inside the residence... consistent with the sounds of transformers, pumps, and air-conditioning units... and the odor of live marijuana emanating from the structure," according to a police report written by Det. Edwin Diaz. Two days later, Diaz and his team executed a search warrant at the house. They found Greenthumb in the hallway outside his marijuana lab. He was charged with marijuana cultivation, grand theft, attempted cannabis trafficking, and criminal mischief — all felonies.

For the cops, Greenthumb was just another in a long line of marijuana growers who have been busted in the past decade. Last year, law enforcement found more than 1,000 grow houses in the state, an increase of more than 50 percent in less than four years. In 2007, Florida ranked second behind California, where voters might legalize weed next month. A year later, the Sunshine State — despite having the harshest criminal penalties for marijuana possession and trafficking — surpassed the Golden State for indoor marijuana production, according to a 2009 Florida Department of Law Enforcement report.

The majority of people arrested on grow-house-related charges are recent arrivals from Cuba living in Miami. However, your average neighbor is getting busted too. During "Operation Rake" — a joint state and federal crackdown on grow houses — law enforcers last year busted a 74-year-old Stock Island man for growing pot at 6621 Maloney Ave. in Key West. William Muir DeChenel was found with nine plants and 58 grams of weed.

This past April, 44-year-old Rhonda Quince and her husband, 51-year-old Jeffrey Scott Wagner, each faced a single count of marijuana cultivation when Hernando County sheriff's deputies learned the pair was growing pot at 12491 Sun Rd. Cops found more than 130 plants in the home. The couple faced a minimum of five years in prison if convicted, but a judge decided to defer prosecution and order them into a pretrial intervention program.

Quince says she grew weed out of desperation. "Jeff's medical expenses drained our savings," she says. "The bills were piling up, and I couldn't find a job." Quince has been a housewife most of her life. While searching the Internet for work, she came across websites that sold marijuana seeds. "I thought if I grew the marijuana, I could grow it and pay some bills," she recounts. "It was worth a shot."

But most of the plants had withered before she could harvest them. And she really didn't know anyone who would buy the marijuana. Robert Abreu and Joseph Wolenski, Miami criminal defense lawyers specializing in grow-house cases, say they are seeing more defendants who fit Quince's profile. "I'm representing people you would never think were capable of doing a grow house," Abreu says. "These are decent people who are two months away from foreclosure or getting their car repossessed."

Abreu and Wolenski helped Greenthumb fight his grow-house charges. Abreu says his client was wrongly charged with attempted trafficking based on the evidence. The plants collected at his grow house were nowhere close to being harvested. According to the police department's crime laboratory analysis report, the marijuana weighed 26.7 grams, equivalent to six sheets of paper.

Yet according to the indictment, the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office claimed that if the plants had been allowed to grow unimpeded, Greenthumb would have possessed the requisite amount to charge him with trafficking.

"The could-have-grown theory just didn't fly," Abreu says. "We ended up working out a plea deal. He pled guilty to a third-degree felony for renting a house to cultivate an illegal drug." Greenthumb received one year of probation and a withhold adjudication.

Wolenski says he and Abreu are working to expunge Greenthumb's record because he had no prior criminal history before the 2008 bust. "The FDLE doesn't want to do it because it is a drug-related case," Wolenski says. "So it will show up on his record, which means he can't vote or ever obtain public housing. He could also be denied employment."

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