Arresting marijuana growers, dealers and users is an ongoing battle for law enforcement, and with new, high-tech methods to produce the drug, the battle keeps getting tougher.
One of those new methods has taken marijuana patches inside, where growers can produce a higher-quality, higher-THC-level drug.
One of those high-tech systems is on display this week at the Washington County Sheriff’s Office booth at the Appalachian Fair.
Lt. Doug Gregg, a department investigator, said he hopes the public will be educated on these types of operations so they can be eyes and ears for the department.
Gregg said he began looking at stats that show how marijuana patches have moved indoors.
“I guess the Paul Fields case was the biggest one (so far),” he said. Fields was arrested in 2009 after investigators found 251 marijuana plants growing inside his house.
At the time, investigators said it was some of the most potent pot they’d seen growing around here.
“That kind of boosted us to train ourselves in the things to look for,” Gregg said.
That year, officers busted six indoor growing operations and two outdoors. In 2010, officers seized marijuana from three indoor operations and two outdoors.
So far this year, they’ve discovered one operation outdoors, which had 36 plants, and three indoors.
“One place had 39 inside and 36 outside. Another one had 35 inside and the third had had 192 inside.
“It’s easy to figure out — 192 plants, there’s no way you’re going to be able to camouflage that outside,” Gregg said. “It’s gonna be easy to spot.”
Most marijuana patches growing in remote areas are hard to spot from the air, but Gregg said officers look for the paths leading to the patches for signs of drug activity.
“Usually you don’t see the plants. You see the trails leading to the plants,” he said of air surveillance.
Also, with the hot weather this area has had this year, an outdoor patch would require frequent visits for watering and plant pruning, he said.
And most outdoor marijuana patches are in smaller quantities, Gregg said, in an apparent attempt to prevent detection.
“The indoor grows are quadruple or double the amount of plants. Outdoors we’re finding nowadays two to 10 plants. They don’t usually have a lot more than 10,” he said.
Of course, not everyone is growing their own marijuana. This year, area law enforcement have arrested numerous people who are charged with possession of marijuana — and not just little nickel bags.
On Jan. 25, Johnson City police arrested a man they said had more than a pound of pot; on March 11, cops found 7.8 ounces of pot and $2,000 when they conducted a traffic stop in a grocery store parking lot; on March 31, police arrested a man on Wilson Avenue after he signed for a FedEx shipment that turned out to be more than seven pounds of marijuana.
Other area police have also seized high-tech growing operations. Morristown police found what they called the most complex system at a couple’s home in April. Officers found 10 large mature pot plants and $8,000 in cash in the home.
The list goes on — Elizabethton police found a brick of compressed marijuana during a traffic stop in April and Johnson City police discovered a pound of pot when they investigated a report of suspicious activity on Oakland Avenue.
Reports from citizens is often the way law enforcement start drug investigations — especially when they are inside a home.
Once officers get a tip about an indoor growing operation, an obvious step is to subpoena the utility records for the residence, Gregg said.
“They don’t call us and say there’s a huge water usage somewhere, but it wouldn’t be good investigating if we didn’t look at that when we get a tip,” he said.
And Gregg said he believes there are many more operations under way.
“I think we’re not finding them. I think they’re there,” he said. “I think it’s all going indoors.”
Another thing that makes Gregg believe more operations are indoors is that a recent aerial eradication operation conducted by TWRA found nothing.
“They didn’t find anything outside. No grows at all,” he said.
Growing pot inside not only allows growers to be more discreet, but they can also produce a higher-quality product, Gregg said.
One of Washington County’s most recent arrests uncovered probably the most sophisticated system Gregg said he’s ever seen.
The man arrested told officers he bought the hydroponic system online for $2,400 and one run of 35 plants netted him $140,000 to $145,000.
“It’s a complete kit,” Gregg said about the system.
“They’re separating the pollenating plants from the bud-producing plants and they’re preventing it from being cross pollenated by pine spores and things like that — controlled environment, controlled humidity increases the THC level,” Gregg said.
“You’re going from six to 12 percent THC outdoors to 35 to 40 percent THC level indoors.”
Such higher quality weed also allows growers to charge higher prices.
Gregg said he believes there will always be a war on drugs, but he and others in law enforcement will continue to fight the battles and skirmishes in that war in an attempt to get illegal drugs off the street.