Pubdate: Sat, 17 Mar 2012
Source: Star-News (Wilmington, NC)
Copyright: 2012 Wilmington Morning Star
Author: Brian Freskos


 From the outside, the one-story brick house seemed like any other in 
this tranquil Ogden neighborhood  screened front porch, navy blue 
shutters, chain-link fence around the backyard.

But when local authorities raided the home last August, what they 
found inside was anything but ordinary: row upon row of pot plants 
under an elaborate display of lamps and ballasts, a ventilation 
system designed to shield the tell-tale aroma from neighbors and 
wiring harnesses replete with outlets and timers. The indoor garden 
was hidden in the garage, steps from the tire swing hanging in the 
neighbor's front yard.

As the resident sat inside, authorities ripped the plants from their 
pots and piled them waist-high in the driveway, unraveling a grow 
operation that furnished marijuana to dealers in the area.

Such an arrangement of horticultural equipment is a common find among 
workshops of clandestine marijuana cultivators. They are items 
readily available at hardware and hydroponic gardening stores. And 
all one needs to learn the tricks of the trade is to conduct a simple 
Google search.

As the debate over legalizing marijuana rages in parts of the United 
States, law enforcement authorities in Southeastern North Carolina 
are noticing a steady climb in the prevalence of illegal grow 
operations in New Hanover and Brunswick counties.

Officials believe the anecdotal increase is fueled by the drug's 
rising popularity but also by savvy drug dealers who have learned 
that selling marijuana is lucrative and the penalties for getting 
caught are light.

"There's a huge profit margin," said Capt. David Ciamillo, the 
commander of New Hanover County's Vice and Narcotics Unit. "You're in 
it for a reason. You're in it to make money."

Building an at-home marijuana grow requires little investment and 
yields enormous profits. According to a U.S. Justice Department 
report released last year, marijuana costs about $75 per pound to 
produce. Yet that same pound can be sold for about $6,000 at the 
wholesale level.

In recent years, there have been numerous high-profile incidents in 
the region of people taking part in the venture:

While president of a downtown Wilmington restaurant and nightclub, 
Ben Stevens, 44, was arrested in July 2010 after police detected the 
aroma of marijuana emanating from his apartment in the city's 
Historic District. A search of the place found 309 plants in all 
stages of growth, from seedlings to harvestable buds. Less than six 
months later and while Stevens was out on bail awaiting trial, police 
dismantled another one of his suspected grow operations, this time 
netting 100 plants from inside a one-story home at 1710 Copley Road. 
Stevens is now serving time for marijuana trafficking.

In southern New Hanover County, a pound of marijuana discovered 
during a traffic stop in Wrightsville Beach in April 2010. The 
resulting investigation led police to neighboring Carolina Beach, 
where the vehicle's drivers were later charged with converting two 
bedrooms into growing facilities replete with an irrigation system 
and special lighting. In an unrelated case less than a year later, 
Carolina Beach police launched another raid on a house next to the 
Snow's Cut Bridge and seized $150,000 worth in plants and packaged product.

During October of last year, deputies across the river in Brunswick 
County broke up a garden that had been set up in a shed behind a 
house in Winnabow. Two months later, deputies dismantled another 
operation that included 100 plants in a house at 1128 Lexington 
Avenue in Leland.

Those episodes provide windows into just a handful of the marijuana 
grows snuffed out by police in recent years.

In New Hanover County, the number of plants seized by deputies has 
more than doubled over the last three years, jumping from 225 plants 
in 2009 to 585 last year. Ciamillo, however, attributed some of the 
increase to better training among detectives that bolstered their 
knowledge about the illegal enterprises and how to spot them.

Statistics from Brunswick County and the City of Wilmington did not 
have statistics available by press time.

The rise in marijuana cultivation coincides with several reports that 
point to marijuana use as gaining popularity and as more Americans 
express support for legalization.

A government-funded survey in 2011 found that one in 15 high school 
students reported smoking marijuana on a near daily basis, a figure 
that reached its highest level in 30 years even as the use of 
cigarettes, alcohol and cocaine among teenagers continued to decline.

The authors of the long-running report, known as the Monitoring the 
Future survey, ascribed the climb in marijuana use to rising 
perceptions that the drug is not harmful.

But the fact that teens seem to have gained ready access to marijuana 
has prompted calls to remove it from the black market. In Colorado, 
for example, a proposition will appear on November's ballot that 
gives voters a chance to decide whether the state should govern 
marijuana similar to how it does alcohol.

The argument is based on the premise that prohibition, much like 
during alcohol in the 1920s, produces an uncontrolled marketplace run 
by a shadowy underworld.

Mason Tvert, co-director of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana like 
Alcohol, which has advocated legalization in Colorado, said the 
measure envisions removing marijuana from the street and putting it 
behind the counter to prevent minors from getting their hands on it.

"That entails establishing licensed retail stores and production 
facilities that would be tightly regulated in a manner similar to how 
we treat alcohol," Tvert said. "Proof of age would be required, and 
our state would generate significant new tax revenues and experience 
job growth."

But critics of bringing marijuana under the regulatory umbrella note 
that moonshine distilleries and underage drinking are still 
widespread problems despite the legalization of alcohol. They also 
argue that permitting the retail sale of marijuana will add another 
substance besides alcohol and tobacco that will detrimentally affect 
people's health.

Advocates in California tried to legalize marijuana two years ago, 
but the proposition failed to marshal enough support.

Asked about his neighbor to the west, Tvert pointed out that Colorado 
already has a system of regulation to oversee the myriad of medical 
marijuana grow facilities and dispensaries around the state. 
California, while it joins Colorado as one of 16 states that allows 
medical marijuana, does not expressly allow cultivation of the drug.

"Coloradoins are more prepared for this type of change," Tvert said. 
"We currently have a state-regulated system of medical marijuana 
production and distribution unlike anywhere else in the country."

Drug investigators in Southeastern North Carolina say the softening 
views toward marijuana on other side of the country are affecting their region.

Sgt. Israel West, a member of Brunswick County's Drug Enforcement 
Unit, said they routinely see packages of marijuana shipped through 
the mail from California, presumably harvested in one of the state's 
quasi-legal grow houses.

Law enforcement here tries not to wade into the legalization debate 
swirling thousands of miles away. They say their job is to enforce the laws.

"As an investigator and a police officer, I don't want my kids using 
that stuff," said Sgt. Will Richards, a member of the Wilmington 
Police Department's Narcotics Enforcement Unit.
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