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.
News Hawk – 420 Warrior 420 MAGAZINE
Location: Wilmington, NC
Author: Brian Freskos
Copyright: 2012 Wilmington Morning Star