Pubdate: Thu, 06 May 1999
Source: St. Petersburg Times (FL)
Copyright: 1999 St. Petersburg Times.
Author: Mike Brassfield


Hard times befell Florida marijuana farmers last year. Droughts and
wildfires that ravaged the state's corn, hay and watermelon crops also put a
dent in the marijuana crop.

But nature, apparently, just pushed the problem indoors.

Rotten weather forced marijuana growers inside, which helps explain why
heavily populated Pinellas County was second only to Dade County last year
in pot-growing arrests and indoor growing operations.

"If you're having problems irrigating and growing a legitimate crop, which
you can do out in the open in front of God and everybody, how much harder is
it to grow an illegal crop under stealth conditions?" said Dave Broadway, a
special agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

While rural North Florida areas typically have the most marijuana plants,
urban indoor growers have been harvesting more and more of Florida's
homegrown cannabis.

In the state's annual marijuana eradication report, released Tuesday,
Broadway said Pinellas County's consistently high numbers, with 34 arrests
last year, probably don't mean more pot is being grown here compared to
other urban areas.

Instead, he said, aggressive police are catching more growers.

"They range from closet-sized operations to fairly substantial ones. I've
seen guys dedicate three rooms of their houses to growing pot," said Lt.
Bill Queen, head of the Pinellas sheriff's narcotics squad.

The sheriff's office has a group of detectives working specifically on
finding these places. They work on tips from suspicious neighbors.

"You can smell the stuff growing if they don't have it sealed up real well,"
Queen said.

Statewide, more growers began moving inside once the authorities got good at
finding marijuana fields.

The catch is, the more sophisticated indoor setups produce higher-grade
marijuana. The FDLE says Florida "homegrown" is more potent than ever.

Marijuana's active ingredient is THC. In 1980, THC levels in
commercial-grade marijuana averaged 1.8 percent. Today that figure is 3.2
percent, according to the FDLE report."

"Years ago, if you got marijuana with a THC level of 4 percent, you had some
good stuff," Broadway said. "Nowadays, 8 to 12 percent is common. They've
gotten up to a whopping 18 percent in Florida."

All of that, authorities say, bolsters this argument:

The marijuana that teenagers might experiment with today is not quite the
same drug Baby Boomers remember from their youths.

A survey last year of Pinellas County eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders found
that 12 percent reported smoking marijuana within the past month.

While so-called medical marijuana initiatives have been passed in seven
states, similar efforts in Florida haven't gotten far.

The Tampa-based Florida Organization for Reformed Marijuana Laws, which held
a "Million Marijuana March" rally Saturday, is on a drive to collect 435,000
signatures to put a medical marijuana referendum on the state ballot in 2000
or 2001.

"People should not be criminalized over a plant," said FORML president
Michael Palmieri. "They don't criminalize people who grow tobacco plants or
drink alcohol."

An Institute of Medicine study released last month found that marijuana can
be effective for treating pain and nausea in some terminally ill patients,
but it also found that marijuana smoke is even more toxic than tobacco smoke
and could cause cancer, lung damage and pregnancy complications.

Federal studies show that most marijuana in the United States continues to
be imported into the country via Mexico.

Although Florida's marijuana production plummeted last year, the number of
arrests did not. A total of 404 growers were arrested in 1998, compared to
477 the previous year.

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