Smell Of Money Makes Pot A Big Indoor Crop

It's one of Washington state's biggest cash crops, but towns don't celebrate the harvest with parades down Main Street. Brochures don't trumpet U-pick farms. In fact, most of the fragrant fields remain out of eyesight - and even sunlight.

It's cannabis indica - marijuana - and chances are it's a neighbor, no matter where you live around Puget Sound.

More people than ever in Western Washington grow cannabis indoors, narcotics investigators say, thanks to soaring marijuana prices, which have made the drug literally worth its weight in gold.

Growers have benefited from an unintended form of protectionism: As the federal government has bolstered efforts to eradicate crops overseas and catch shipments at the borders, domestic marijuana growers have filled the demand.

Washington ranks among the top five states for indoor marijuana production, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Exact information is impossible to find because of the nature of the drug trade. But interviews with a dozen police officials, prosecutors and former growers painted the same picture.

"This is like the weed-growing capital of the nation," says John Adcock, a Snohomish County deputy prosecutor who works with a county drug task force. "Sometimes I think everybody in the county is growing marijuana."

Although cultivating marijuana is a felony, the industry thrives, and not only in the unpeopled corners of the area. Police regularly bust "grows" in and around Seattle, from warehouses in Ballard to an office park in Mountlake Terrace.

Marijuana's cheerleaders say that ubiquity, along with the recent victory of the medical-marijuana initiative in the state, reflects Americans' desire to see the drug decriminalized.

Exasperated authorities say the prevalence of the drug can be traced to a society that is ambivalent about it, and to a judicial system that, accordingly, often treats cannabis growers like jaywalkers.

That ambivalence is misguided, authorities say. Today's made-in-Washington marijuana - at least 10 times more powerful than the stuff smoked at Woodstock - is more addictive and is a more dangerous "gateway drug" that encourages use of harder drugs, they say.

Critics claim that big profits have led to more violence in the marijuana trade, and they argue that society's attitudes and penalties for growers need to reflect those dangers.

But that hasn't happened. Instead, the growers have changed and thrived, just like their crop.

Pot is popular among the young

More people use marijuana in the United States than any other illegal drug. About 5.1 percent of people ages 12 and older - close to 11 million people - said they had smoked marijuana in the past month, according to the 1997 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, which was commissioned by the federal government. After years of decline, that number has remained doggedly constant for much of the 1990s, thanks in part to pot's resurgent popularity among the young.

More than one in four 10th- and 12th-graders in Washington said they recently used marijuana, up about 8 percentage points from six years ago, according to a survey of 14,000 high-school students released last month.

More of the pot they smoke now comes from the nation's back yards and basements. Domestic marijuana growers have increased their production from about 25 percent to closer to 50 percent of the nation's supply in recent years, estimates Chuck Hosier of the Drug Enforcement Agency.

The exact size of the cannabis crop is impossible to determine, but one national group pushing for the drug's decriminalization claims it is Washington's fifth-largest agricultural crop in dollar value. The report, issued last month by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), places marijuana ahead of sweet cherries, grapes and pears.

Nationally, marijuana ranks as the nation's fourth-largest cash crop, based on the "wholesale" price the growers receive, NORML says.

The DEA no longer estimates the size of marijuana crops. Department statistics from 1996, however, ranked Washington as one of the nation's top five producers of indoor-cultivated marijuana, along with California, Florida, Oregon and Kentucky. At least 80 percent of the marijuana seized in the Seattle area is grown indoors, according to the agency's statistics in 1996.

The deluge overwhelms authorities. "If we're getting 1 percent we're lucky," says Pat Gregory, a former DEA agent, who has worked the West Coast from Seattle to Mexico.

"It's laughable."

NW grows potent cannabis

Quantity isn't this area's only claim to fame among marijuana aficionados. The Pacific Northwest grows the most potent cannabis in the nation, say growers and authorities alike.

Marijuana gets most of its kick from THC - delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol. Not so long ago, smokers dried, crumbled and smoked the plant's leaves to get high. Growers today toss entire garbage bags of leaves in city dumps. They instead prize sinsemilla, the THC-packed buds of unpollinated female plants. Sinsemilla is Spanish for "without seed."

Twenty-five years ago, the THC content of street marijuana averaged less than 1 percent, according to the DEA. Cannabis grown in Western Washington today has THC levels up to 25 percent.

Potency drives up price. The profit to be made by growers beggars the imagination.

"A benchmark that we go by is that if a guy really knows what he's doing - and that's critical here - he can get anywhere from 14 to 17 pounds (of sinsemilla) from a 100-plant grow, and he can do it three or four times a year," says Adcock, the deputy prosecutor assigned to the Snohomish Regional Narcotics Task Force.

With Northwest "bud" selling for $3,500 a pound (wholesale), that grower could realize up to $240,000 annually, tax-free. And when sold in quantities of an ounce or less on the street, marijuana becomes as dear as gold - nearly $300 an ounce, more in California.

The ease of growing marijuana has made the business even more attractive. A modest 100-plant grow could fit easily into half of the average home's basement. Authorities routinely raid homes containing 200 plants or more. Experienced growers may have to work only two hours each day - and invest just $1,000 in equipment.

How growers hide marijuana

The only thing that seems to keep pace with the price of marijuana is the ingenuity of growers trying to develop a better - and better hidden - crop.

A man near Granite Falls a few years ago grew plants in an old Air Force school bus he had ripped the seats out of, then buried. He reached the bus via a ladder that descended from a toilet in a fake outhouse.

Yet most of the growing takes place in average-looking houses, on suburban streets, authorities say. "Any place you can hide it - any outbuilding, any shed, any garage - just about any place you've got power, you'll get grows," says Sgt. Mike Mitchell, a member of the South Snohomish County Narcotics Task Force.

Walking around the recent bust of a 372-plant grow in the Mountlake Terrace office park, Mitchell explained the basic elements of an indoor farm:

The grower had carved two smaller rooms, each about 8x11 feet, from the rented space. The first room housed the younger crop: About 100 foot-high plants were clustered in their pots, straining toward the false sun of two high-pressure sodium lamps. The lamps hummed and washed the room with orange light, despite the broad metal shades that deflected the glow toward the crop. In a corner, about 100 cuttings grew under a low light - the starter plants for the next generation.

In the second room about 150 more plants, many waist-high, were crowded beneath three sodium lights set on timers. Garbage cans filled with fertilizer-rich water sat outside the rooms. Mitchell wasn't impressed. "He doesn't have enough chemicals to know what he's doing - no bat guano and other stuff."

Not that the grower was a complete novice. In the latter room, fans gently swayed the plants, forcing them to grow stronger stalks that will support the weight of large buds. The largest plants were carefully staked, like tomatoes.

Some high-tech growers don't bother with soil at all, but use hydroponics - cultivating plants in nutrient-rich solutions. They frequently coat the walls of the rooms with reflective Mylar sheeting, or paint them bright white to reflect more light onto the plants. "Lots of times they'll have propane tanks burning" to pump in carbon dioxide and increase growth, Mitchell said.

As the buds grow larger, the farmers will stress the plants for days with enormous quantities of light, tricking them into growing still larger buds, before cutting and drying them.

Some growers get caught because of marijuana's distinctive smell. Others are betrayed when they steal electricity to keep their power bills inconspicuous. But police, who are swamped, usually rely on an age-old system: tips from disgruntled associates or family members.

Scent of big money lures growers

The scent of big money has lured a wider population to the ranks of marijuana growers and smashed the old stereotype of the hippie farmer. Growers can be young or old, white-collar or blue-collar, rural or urban.

"I see a lot of working-class men and women who, most of them, have no prior convictions. Most of them are employed, have families, they're productive citizens, good neighbors - and for one reason or another they prefer cannabis over booze," says Jeff Steinborn, a Seattle attorney who has represented accused marijuana growers for two decades.

Police and narcotics investigators blame what they say is a soft justice system in part for attracting so many people into the business.

First-time offenders face sentences of one to three months in jail. But if they plead guilty, many walk away with little or no jail time - 240 hours of community service and a $500 fine that's rarely paid, says Steve Merrival, a deputy prosecuting attorney in Pierce County.

Last year, 95 percent of those convicted for the first time of manufacturing or delivering marijuana spent an average of just under 45 days in jail, according to the state's Sentencing Guidelines Commission.

"They get minimal jail time - and they're growing while they're in jail," says a frustrated Roger Lake, president of the Washington State Narcotics Investigators Association.

A second conviction boosts jail time to nine to 12 months, but prosecutors often will scrap the more serious cultivation charge if the grower pleads guilty to a lesser charge, like felony drug possession, Merrival says.

Gregory, the former Drug Enforcement Agency agent, says, "We can't expend our manpower on something that's not going to be taken seriously by the courts."

The influx of other drugs deemed more dangerous has reduced the time police spend pursuing growers.

"The methamphetamine problem is so epidemic in (Pierce) County that we haven't worked a marijuana grow in over a year," Lake said last spring.

When possible, local narcotics agents like to turn over their cases to the federal government, which can lead to more severe penalties for growers - five years or more for a grow of 100 plants or more, for example.

But federal authorities in Western Washington usually don't take interest in a case unless a grow is closer to 500 plants, sources say - a bar that has risen in recent years. Some growers remain below that bar by creating "sharecropping" arrangements, in which several people get paid to tend crops of 100 or 200 plants each.

Authorities say new trouble has moved into the marijuana-growing industry in recent years.

In Oregon and Idaho, organized, violent groups now control many large marijuana farms. They have not extended their reach to Washington, but violence here is on the rise, too, narcotics investigators say.

"Some of the most heavily armed people we have ever served search warrants on are the marijuana growers," Lake says.

-- In July, a Tacoma man was sentenced to 29 years for killing a sheriff's deputy during a 1995 raid of the man's home, in which he ran a small marijuana operation. That sentence was added to one of 20 years for wounding another deputy during the raid.

-- In June, a 22-year-old Kent man went to prison for 23 years for trying to kill a former high-school classmate after a $99,000 marijuana deal.

-- In January, a teenager killed and robbed a father and son who grew marijuana at their home near Granite Falls. He was sentenced in July to life in prison.

Steinborn and former growers disagree strongly with the portrait of a trade that has become bloody.

"There's been no violence in any of my cases, and there's violence only when the police have bullied and abused my clients," Steinborn said.

Those who favor marijuana's decriminalization argue that authorities and the government are overzealous when it comes to arresting and prosecuting growers - particularly on the federal level.

"There's not a week that goes by that a nice person doesn't come into my office and cry, because of what the government's doing to them," Steinborn said.

Though he favors the legalization of marijuana, Steinborn worries about the price the drug now commands: People are lured by the promise of easy money, he says, without realizing the consequences.

The debate isn't likely to end anytime soon, or become any less passionate. Meanwhile, in the back rooms and basements, a thriving business purrs on.