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Pinellas shopping plaza housed secret marijuana farm

A narcotics officer in a protective suit and breathing unit removes marijuana plants from a warehouse at 39070 U.S. 19 N in Tarpon Springs on Monday.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

A narcotics officer in a protective suit and breathing unit removes marijuana plants from a warehouse at 39070 U.S. 19 N in Tarpon Springs on Monday.

TARPON SPRINGS — Hidden inside the tan warehouse behind the shopping center on U.S. 19, authorities say, were fake walls, secret doors and more than $300,000 worth of marijuana plants.

On Monday morning, Pinellas sheriff's detectives raided the grow operation at 39070 U.S. 19 N, just north of Klosterman Road.

They seized 451 plants of various sizes — 222 pounds of marijuana total — and $146,020 in cash.

But detectives didn't just break up a sophisticated grow operation — they shed light on an increasingly sophisticated problem.

Indoor marijuana farms are on the rise in the Tampa Bay area and across Florida.

"Across the state there are a lot of grow operations, and a lot of them are located in your rural areas," Pinellas sheriff's Lt. Robert Alfonso said after Monday's bust. "They're not that common in urban areas, like ours.

"But what we're starting to see now is people growing it in houses and, today, in a warehouse."

• • •

In 2007 Pinellas County agencies seized and destroyed 479 marijuana plants from indoor growers, according to state records. But in 2008, that number jumped to 2,636 plants — a 450 percent increase.

Florida experienced a huge jump in indoor grow busts between those years, seizing 37,311 plants in 2007 and doubling that to 74,698 last year.

According to Pinellas search warrants, county agencies have already seized 676 plants this year. Add in Monday's bust, and more than 1,100 marijuana plants have been seized in 2009 — and it's just March.

The problem is twofold, according to authorities:

First, marijuana is increasingly the drug of choice.

"We know if they're using other drugs, they're all using marijuana," Alfonso said. "It's the most common drug out on the street today."

Second, growing indoors allows drug dealers to escape detection and improve the quality — or potency — of their product.

Indoor growers aren't yet a threat to the smuggling rings that move the drug from Mexico across the border to California and Arizona, the lieutenant said. But like those groups, indoor growers are becoming increasingly organized in Florida.

Mexican marijuana, according to Alfonso, goes for $1,500 to $3,000 a pound. Marijuana grown indoors can fetch up to $5,000 a pound.

• • •

Monday's grow operation used fake walls to conceal the marijuana plants and the equipment used to grow them. Hidden doors allowed the growers to travel undetected between the five storage bays.

Workers at the plaza had no idea what went on inside the warehouse. Even when the rollup doors were open, anyone who passed by would think it nothing more than a construction subcontractor's shop, authorities said.

The Sheriff's Office also raided a second location Monday somewhere south of Palm Harbor — the location was not immediately identified — and found packaged marijuana and more than $100,000 in cash.

No one has been arrested so far, but one man was taken into custody and is cooperating with detectives.

The investigation started two months ago with an old-fashioned tip.

Those types of leads became more valuable after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2001 restricted the use of thermal imaging, one of law enforcement's more advanced investigative weapons. Such devices threaten Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, the court ruled.

Law enforcement also has found another tool: the electric company. Growing marijuana indoors requires heat lamps and massive amounts of power.

Some dealers steal electricity; others just pay the massive bills. Either way, they risk detection.

"I've seen electric bills at some of these locations that run $400 to $500 a month," Alfonso said. "But the other side of that is there's a lot of money to be made."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

Fast facts

Marijuana plants seized

County 2006 2007 2008

Hernando 170 2,931 2,956

Hillsborough 348 493 5,298

Pinellas 519 479 2,636

Florida 37,311 74,698 78,489

Source: Law enforcement agencies

Pinellas shopping plaza housed secret marijuana farm 03/09/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 10, 2009 7:37am]

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