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Sheriff's Office operation half-baked

You might call it “Operation Cheech and Chong” — the Pinellas Sheriff’s Office recorded license plates at a hydroponics store.

Universal City Studios (1980)

You might call it “Operation Cheech and Chong” — the Pinellas Sheriff’s Office recorded license plates at a hydroponics store.

Holy smoke — no pun intended, more or less — from the looks of this caper, you would have thought the Pinellas County sheriff gendarmes were hot on the trail of Pablo Escobar meets Asia's Golden Triangle.

High-tech surveillance! Raids! Gumshoes aplenty!

Cue the Dragnet theme. Or perhaps the Andy Griffith Show ditty.

Last fall the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office used its considerable crime-fighting resources to extend the long arm of the law to crack down on hydroponic marijuana growers. In fact, the operation managed to track down and capture … at least one plant.

Not only was the Mary Jane read its Miranda rights, but the Whole Earth Catalog, too.

What could we call this intensive investigation? "Operation Cheech and Chong"?

While the mean streets of the county have no shortage of villains engaged in villainy, the Sheriff's Office decided to launch "Operation Dave's Not Here" by mounting a camera across the street from Simply Hydroponics on Ulmerton Road in Largo to record the license plate numbers of customers patronizing the perfectly legal business.

Applying Sherlock Holmesian logic, the sleuths deduced that people buying stuff from Simply Hydroponics just might be using the wares of the perfectly legal establishment for the nefarious purpose of also growing loco weed. And the chase was on.

Well! It didn't take long for the coppers scouring the video of people going in and out of Simply Hydroponics to identify 39 potential doobie desperados. Perhaps it was the tie-dyed shirts that gave them away. Or perhaps they were driving 1967 Volkswagen campers with "Jerry Garcia for President" bumper stickers. Or maybe their next stop after shopping at the store was to buy brownie mix.

The Eliot Nesses of Hash tightened the noose by inspecting the suspects' electricity usage and monitoring their homes to see if there were any humming motors — or tell-tale signs of blacked-out windows. The Inspector Clouseaus of Cannabis also spent time hanging around the residents' property trying to smell wafts of wacky weed in the air.

Apparently it has become a useful employment skill at the Sheriff's Office to have the bloodhound-like olfactory skills of a Sweet Lucy sommelier.

Installing a camera across the street from a perfectly legal business to snoop on its lawful customers; invading the privacy of citizens to peruse their electric bills; lurking around private property sniffing the air without a search warrant — all in the pursuit a handful of folks who might be growing some pot in their homes, hardly rises to the level of Mexican drug lords smuggling tons of the stuff across the border.

Sheesh, the subprime mortgage scandal wasn't this thoroughly investigated.

And while the Sheriff's Office insists they did indeed find some marijuana in the homes they searched, the modest haul was barely rose to the level of an hors d'oeuvre for Keith Richards.

Or put another way, if you were a law-abiding customer of Simply Hydroponics who visited the store to pick up some equipment to grow rutabagas using only water and nutrients, you were at some point considered a potential criminal suspect.

This was like unleashing the powers of the IRS to bring the illicit lemonade stand menace to account.

It's entirely possible a cynic might arrive at the conclusion some sheriff's deputies involved in "Operation Reefer Madness" were being less than candid. In applying for search warrants to go into the homes of suspected roach kingpins, they claimed they could smell the foul aroma of crime in the air from outside the residence.

Apparently you can — if the yield inside is about the size of Nebraska's annual corn harvest.

Dawn Bednar, the co-owner of Simply Hydroponics, told the St. Petersburg Times' Rita Farlow the Sheriff's Office unfairly targeted and tainted her perfectly legal business, rightly arguing that since everyone who visits a gun shop isn't a murderer, why should she be singled out simply because some of her customers may use their purchases to grow some Tampa Bay Delight?

This could get ridiculous. Obviously those hydroponic marijuana farmers need to inhale the fruits of their labor. Should the Sheriff's Office start staking out convenience stores that sell rolling paper? "Operation Slurpee"? Probably best not to encourage them.

"Operation Like Wow, Man" was cooked up during the tenure of recently retired Sheriff Jim Coats, an otherwise pretty sensible and pragmatic law enforcement professional who must have had a complete brain infarction for permitting this dopey — no pun intended, more or less — waste of time and precious resources to go forward.

It does sorta make you wonder what's in the water over there at the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. It must be good stuff.

Sheriff's Office operation half-baked 12/05/11 [Last modified: Monday, December 5, 2011 6:03pm]
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