Police officers, medical marijuana patients and everyday stoners generally agree: One-eighth of an ounce of high-quality marijuana costs about $50. But ask around about the value of a living marijuana plant and you’re likely to get all kinds of answers.
One answer is $3,000. That’s the estimated value the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department assigns to every marijuana plant it discovers, whether it is young or old, short or tall, grown inside or outdoors, of high quality or low, cultivated by an experienced grower or a first-timer, said sheriff’s Lt. Hank Turner.
“What we do is estimate if each was a mature budding plant, what it could make on the open market,” Turner said.
Defense attorneys and medical marijuana advocates generally agree with authorities on the price of pot, but they said authorities’ estimates of how much marijuana the average plant can produce in its lifetime is unrealistically high in many cases —- especially when the plants are grown inside.
The argument is more than theoretical, they say. Larger amounts of marijuana mean tougher penalties for those caught possessing it.
The Sheriff’s Department arrives at its per-plant estimate by gathering what it and other law enforcement agencies know about marijuana strains, prices, production and sales, and then starts plugging numbers into an algorithm, Turner said.
The result is a number authorities will use again and again throughout the year for every plant they find, regardless of circumstance.
For example, authorities used the $3,000-per-plant estimate to calculate the value of 100 plants discovered Jan. 10 on Keys Creek Road in Valley Center, Turner said. As a result, the total estimated value of the plants was $300,000.
The across-the-board, per-plant value estimate may not be precise in every cultivation scenario, but it produces a reliable frame of reference the public can use to get a fairly accurate feel for the overall size and value of the marijuana market each year in San Diego County, Turner said.
“Is it the best way?” Turner asked rhetorically. “I don’t know if it’s the best way, but it’s the most accurate way as far as we know.”
The dollar value of a plant has no legal significance, Turner said. It’s the number of plants that matters in court.
Context is key
Medical marijuana advocates and defense attorneys said most law enforcement agencies appear to use methods similar to the Sheriff’s Department’s to estimate the value of marijuana plants.
They said it’s important for people —- whether they are judges, jurors or members of the public —- to consider the estimates in context.
For one thing, it’s unrealistic to assume that every plant will not only live into adulthood but also produce a lot of pot, attorneys and advocates said.
The federal Drug Enforcement Administration in San Diego doesn’t have a set formula for figuring out the value of a marijuana plant, but agents estimate that one plant —- whether it is grown inside or out —- can produce 1 to 2.2 pounds of usable marijuana in its lifetime, said Amy Roderick, public information officer for the DEA’s field division in San Diego.
A plant is capable of reproducing “buds,” or the flowers where the plant’s psychoactive chemicals are most concentrated, after the grower has harvested them. Under the right growing conditions, a plant may yield several harvests in its lifetime.
It may be possible for an indoor plant to produce a pound of marijuana, but most growers have limited space and can’t allow plants to reach their maximum size, said Michael Cindrich, an attorney and executive director of the San Diego office of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a nonprofit aimed at decriminalizing responsible marijuana use by adults.
“There are a lot of factors involved, but most growers will tell you it is extremely uncommon to produce a pound or more with one indoor plant,” Cindrich said.
In many situations —- especially when growers are inexperienced —- some plants die before they are mature, attorneys and advocates said. Others plants fail to produce much usable marijuana.
“Some people are good at growing things, and some are not as good as growing things,” said Melissa Bobrow, a criminal defense attorney in San Diego who handles medical marijuana cases. “It matters in court because they say, ‘Look at all these plants, and look at all the money involved. They must be dealing it; there’s no way they could be doing this legally.'”
Personal use or sales?
The question of how much marijuana a plant can produce is key to establishing in court whether people are growing marijuana for themselves or to sell, Cindrich said. Possession of marijuana is a less serious crime than possession for sales, and the punishment for sales is stiffer.
Depending on how much marijuana is involved, possession can be prosecuted as an infraction punishable by a $100 fine, or a misdemeanor with a penalty of up to six months in jail and a $500 fine, said Steven Walter, a prosecutor with the San Diego County district attorney’s office.
Possessing marijuana for sale is a felony, and people convicted of the crime face up to three years in prison, Walter said.
“If the person has 12 plants and law enforcement says they can produce 12 pounds, that might be considered an unreasonable amount,” Cindrich said. “For a patient to possess 12 pounds if most patients are only allowed 8 ounces, 12 plants seems like a lot.”
“The estimate definitely matters because whether it’s a judge or a jury, they’re using that estimate to determine the amount, and whether that person is possessing for sale,” he said.
A medical marijuana user following recommended dosage may smoke between 1.5 pounds and 4.47 pounds in a given year, depending on the quality of the pot, according a 2004 study by researchers at UC San Francisco.
Estimates of marijuana’s shelf life vary, but many say it can stay good for months or years if stored correctly. “Time-capsule weed” is often drier and less potent than fresh marijuana.
Ultimately, judges and juries are the ones who decide how much marijuana a grower really has, and whether that amount is reasonable for personal use, said Bobrow, the defense attorney.
To help them decide, defense attorneys commonly bring in expert witnesses who can explain to a jury how marijuana cultivation works, she said.
“It’s really critical as a defense attorney to have an expert come in and do an evidence review to make sure the weight that law enforcement is reporting is accurate, or at least put it into context,” Bobrow said.
News Hawk – 420 Warrior 420 MAGAZINE
Location: Escondido, CA
Source: North County Times
Author: Morgan Cook
Copyright: 2012 North County Times
Website: North County Times – Californian