Pubdate: Tue, 22 May 2012
Source: Star-News (Wilmington, NC)
Copyright: 2012 Wilmington Morning Star
Author: Brian Freskos


Technological advancements have given today's teenagers access to a 
lot of things their parents could hardly envision at that age: The 
Internet. iPads. And marijuana many times more powerful than what 
people smoked in the 1970s.

The rise in marijuana use among teens, as documented by recent 
national surveys, comes as particularly alarming to health advocates 
because marijuana is more potent than ever before, experts say. That 
means the pot youth are smoking today carries a greater risk of harm 
than what their parents might have experienced a generation ago.

"The people who are growing marijuana have improved their 
techniques," Stephen Pasierb, president and CEO of the Partnership at, said in phone interview. "Nobody's cleaning seeds out 
of marijuana on a record album like they used to do in the old days."

Counter-drug investigators say the trend is increasingly evident in 
North Carolina too, as clandestine domestic producers perfect their 
techniques and harness science to genetically engineer their yields.

Growing marijuana indoors, a common practice among domestic 
cultivators, allows producers to manipulate temperatures, carbon 
dioxide levels and other environmental elements. That degree of 
control, coupled with the selective breeding of more powerful 
cannabis strains, enables the production of highly potent plants.

"They cross strains like they're breeding dogs," said Special Agent 
Gregory Peckinpaugh, domestic cannabis eradication suppression 
coordinator for the Drug Enforcement Agency's Atlanta field division, 
which covers North Carolina. As a result, he said, "the quality of 
marijuana both indoors and out domestically has gone up exponentially."

Marijuana potency, determined by the amount of the active chemical 
delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, measured in a given sample, has 
been on a steady climb over the last three decades.

In 1976, an analysis of DEA seizures found an average THC content of 
between a half and 1 percent. In 2011, that figure was nearing 12 
percent, with some samples containing THC levels above 20 and 30 
percent, said Mahmoud ElSohly, director of the University of 
Mississippi's Potency Monitoring Project, which conducted the analyses.

Because long-term marijuana users develop tolerance for the drug, 
ElSohly said the stakes were higher for young people whose bodies are 
unaccustomed to high-grade marijuana's powerful effects.

"They end up with psychosis, psychological problems, panic disorder, 
things of that nature, because their body is not used to that 
material," ElSohly said.

The prevalence of potent marijuana has led to concerns among health 
advocates because the number of teens using the drug has increased in 
recent years. A survey released in May by the Partnership at and MetLife Foundation found that one in 10 teens had 
smoked marijuana at least 20 times in the previous month, an 80 
percent increase over 2008.

Marijuana production is big business, a fact authorities ascribe to 
high profit margins, easy access to equipment and information and 
lower penalties in comparison to getting caught trafficking drugs 
like heroin or cocaine. High quality marijuana can sell for between 
$4,000 and $6,000 per pound, compared to about $1,000 or less for the 
weak varieties imported from Mexico, authorities said.

The bigger domestic grow operations are elaborate setups, complete 
with timers, fans, rows of lights and ventilation systems designed to 
hide the tell-tale aroma from neighbors. The attention to detail, as 
well as the dedication that some growers show, tending to their 
plants seven days a week like a religion, can marvel authorities.

The science behind the practice has produced a shadowy subculture of 
rogue horticulturists concerned about whether product quality will 
affect their reputation.

Sgt. Will Richards, an investigator with the Wilmington Police 
Department's Narcotics Enforcement Unit, said the city has seen 
operations where producers stagger their growing schedules so they 
yield a harvest every few weeks, and thus a steady stream of income. 
"It's extremely intricate," Richards said.

Seasoned investigators have learned to distinguish at a glance 
enhanced marijuana from what they refer to as "brick weed," so called 
because traffickers compress it to sneak as much as possible across the border.

In addition to more marijuana cultivators setting up shop in North 
Carolina, the softening of laws in other states has led to greater 
supply for all, authorities say.

California, where quasi-legal grow houses have sprung up in recent 
years, has become a leading source of marijuana for markets in 
Southeastern North Carolina. Authorities in Arizona recently 
intercepted a vehicle leaving California carrying 20 pounds of 
high-grade product destined for Wilmington, police said.

Some believe Mexican President Felipe Calderon's grinding war against 
the cartels there has boosted prices for drugs shipped 
transnationally, giving homegrown marijuana producers a chance to 
capture more market share even though the price of their product runs 
higher than their Mexican counterparts.

Lt. J.A. LeBlanc, an investigator with the New Hanover County 
Sheriff's Office's Vice and Narcotics Unit, said users have become 
choosey with the quality of marijuana they consume, refusing to even 
buy the drug unless it meets a high standard.

"Now, you have an entire generation who reads "'High Times' and 
considers themselves marijuana connoisseurs," he said, referencing a 
niche publication geared toward users and growers.
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