Pot trade blossoms in heartland

Medical growers part of emergence



First of two parts

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- John Evans' two-story rental is indistinguishable from the homes that line the streets of his suburb near Ann Arbor.

The manicured lawns and neatly arranged flower beds blend together, portraying an idealistic middle-class life. Mr. Evans, 46, moved from Colorado to Michigan two years ago to take advantage of the state's fledgling medical marijuana law, approved by voters in 2008.

Largely independent of government inspection, medical marijuana growers such as Mr. Evans are part of an industry that's emerging from the underground and entering the mainstream.

The marijuana trade is blossoming throughout Michigan, Ohio and the Midwest through legal and illegal operations. The cultivation of highly potent marijuana, shifting black-market demands, and a growing acceptance of the drug all play a part in its entry into the limelight.

"I just had to move to Michigan," said Mr. Evans, who suffers from chronic pain. "I established residency and I took my medical records and my documentation from Colorado. I was previously recommended for medical marijuana by three different doctors in Colorado. With approval from a certified doctor and pain specialist in Ann Arbor, I filled out the paperwork, and months later I did receive my card from the state. It really wasn't that difficult."

Mr. Evans did not meet residency requirements under Colorado's medical marijuana law, so he moved to Michigan.

The proponents of Michigan's medical marijuana law hoped people like Mr. Evans would normalize the drug in the eyes of the public. The state was a critical win for advocates, said Tim Beck, an activist who pioneered the effort to put the law on the November 2008 ballot.

Michigan provides the foothold to spread medical marijuana through the Midwest and opened the door for decriminalization and legalization efforts, Mr. Beck said.

"We want to create a critical mass for legalization nationwide," said Mr. Beck, who has been dubbed the godfather of marijuana in Michigan. "Critics of marijuana reform would point to the West Coast as being a different part of the country. Michigan kind of gives the mom and apple pie ... image to it.

"It isn't just a West Coast phenomenon. People in the heartland believe this, too."

There are movements in Ohio and Illinois to legalize medical marijuana, and a bill has been introduced in the Michigan Legislature to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. In Ohio, possessing less than 100 grams of marijuana for personal use is a minor misdemeanor and carries a $150 fine.

Marijuana use has been legalized in Colorado and Washington, and 18 states and the District of Columbia have approved medical marijuana. The drug is illegal under federal law and people in states that have legalized marijuana or medical cannabis still can be prosecuted for growing, possessing or distributing it.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Beck is one of the people backing the decriminalization bill in the Michigan Legislature. "Absolutely, legalization is the goal. There is no denying that, but you have got to take it one step at a time," he said. "The polling numbers were much more favorable for medical marijuana than legalization."

Growing operation

The first floor of Mr. Evans' home is sparsely decorated, and the house seems too large for him and his bull mastiff. The empty rooms, however, provide the perfect space to run a marijuana-growing operation.

Using about $5,000 in supplies purchased from hardware stores and gardening shops, Mr. Evans transformed his basement into a makeshift greenhouse. He built two grow rooms lined with white plastic sheeting. Both routinely are sterilized so the marijuana remains free of mold and bugs. Ventilation ducts that regulate humidity and temperature loop from room to room.

In mid-April, plants 3 to 4 feet tall sat in one room illuminated by bright white lights. The other room -- outfitted with red and blue LED lights to simulate sunshine found near the equator -- was empty because Mr. Evans harvested its crop a week earlier.

Those plants were cut and left to dry in a closet upstairs.

Mr. Evans' marijuana is highly valued because it contains almost no THC and is rich with CBD, a chemical compound that has been shown to relieve pain and curb seizures and convulsions. CBD users can smoke or ingest the marijuana without feeling stoned, he said.

In Michigan, doctors must approve patients to receive medical marijuana, but they do not write prescriptions for the substance.

The marijuana Mr. Evans grows for his own use can net him more than $20,000 a year. He sells his excess product to dispensaries around southern Michigan and sometimes provides marijuana to patients who name him as their caregiver.

"From a recreational perspective, like what your casual user would feel, I would say it's like espresso; it is more a stimulant. It tends to perk up your thought process as opposed to the usual stoner effect," Mr. Evans said. "It also works as a dietary suppressant, the reverse munchy effect. It's kind of the reverse, anti-pot."

Marijuana is Mr. Evans' bread and butter. The U.S. Navy veteran's grow operation is his primary income.

Stronger weed

Growers in Michigan can produce up to 72 plants at a time if they provide for themselves and an additional five patients -- state law allots 12 plants per person. Those harvests can yield a crop that's worth more than $100,000.

Marijuana is abundant in Michigan, with 124,131 registered patients and 50,188 marijuana growers registered with the state last year. Users and growers exist in every county and are spread among cities, suburbs and rural areas. Michigan counties with the most growers include Wayne, Oakland and Macomb.

Although the illegal marijuana trade has existed for decades, marijuana cultivation has been transformed in the past 10 years. The most significant shift has been the cultivation of extremely potent weed that can get a user high with a few puffs.

Growers -- thanks to advances in technology and plant science -- are able to increase levels of THC, CBD and other cannabinoids. Cannabinoids are the chemical compounds in marijuana that react with the body.

In the medical marijuana industry, different cannabinoids are used to ease the suffering associated with chronic medical conditions. The Center for Medical Cannabis Research at the University of California, San Diego, has found that marijuana can temper symptoms of people with HIV/AIDS and multiple sclerosis. The center is one of the few places in the United States approved to conduct marijuana research.

On the black market, designer marijuana is popular for its purity. It carries street prices that are at least two times that of regular marijuana, going for about $3,500 a pound in Toledo. It can reach a price that's three to five times higher than regular-grade weed.

The more costly marijuana is often cultivated in indoor hydroponic, or water-based, operations instead of soil.

"A lot of times it's not the same marijuana your parents or grandparents were smoking back in the day. A lot of it is much stronger," Toledo police Sgt. Joe Heffernan said.

Rise of hydroponics

Joshua Bennett's head hung low as he was escorted by Toledo police out of 3034 S. Byrne Road on April 12. The handcuffed 28-year-old was somber as Toledo narcotics and SWAT officers loaded the home's grow operation into their vehicles.

The officers, many of whom wore ski masks to protect their identities, darted in and out of the rundown duplex as a SWAT vehicle idled on the street. The scent of marijuana wafted from the open front door. Parents peered from their car windows as they shuttled their children home in the quiet South Toledo neighborhood.

The bust turned up 65 hydroponic marijuana plants, seven pounds of processed weed and an SKS assault rifle. Mr. Bennett, whose case is scheduled to go before a grand jury, refused to comment for this story.

Valued at $115,800, the seizure is one of the larger home grows Toldeo police have come across, Sgt. Heffernan said.

"I would say the transition to hydroponic was kind of slow and steady, and I don't think there was a watershed event that was the force," he said. "It was gradual to where it's the preferred source of marijuana for most users, especially the people that are growing it."

Dealers can make more money with hydroponic marijuana, and it satisfies a demand that continues to grow.

It is such a lucrative business that Toledo police began tracking hydroponic seizures in 2010. The department seized 256,577 grams of hydroponic marijuana since it began recording those statistics. That's about 9,050 ounces of high-grade pot, or 566 pounds, which accounts for about 30 percent of the marijuana taken by police in that period.

Sold on the street, the hydroponic marijuana seized by police in Toledo over the period could fetch more than $2 million, definitely a cash crop. The seized drugs were destroyed in an industrial incinerator.

The Drug Enforcement Administration doesn't track whether its marijuana seizures are hydroponic or if they're considered medical cannabis. The federal government doesn't recognize medical marijuana and doesn't make distinctions on why marijuana is being grown, said Rich Isaacson, a spokesman and special agent for the DEA.

The DEA, however, does track eradication efforts for each state.

According to those statistics, home-grow seizures increased by an average of about 20 in Michigan and two in Ohio year over year from 2003 to 2011. The average number of indoor plants eradicated each year by the DEA was 10,931 in Michigan and 11,236 in Ohio. About 100,000 indoor marijuana plants were seized by the DEA in each state during that period.

Outdoor marijuana grows, however, showed a converse trend between the two states. The average year-over-year change for outdoor operations was an increase of about 64 in Michigan and a decrease of 44 in Ohio. About 290,000 plants were eradicated in Michigan and 395,000 were destroyed in Ohio during that time.

The problem extends far beyond the marijuana grow operations, Mr. Isaacson said. The DEA's focus is on large-scale marijuana operations, he said.

"You've got the [British Columbia] bud coming in from Canada, you've got a lot of the grows that are happening right here in Michigan in people's backyards and basements, but a lot of the drug activity here is coming from the cartels in Mexico," Mr. Isaacson said. "You've got a three-pronged approach to marijuana distribution in our region."

Much of the high-grade marijuana on Toledo's streets comes from out of state, Sgt. Heffernan said. The police conduct routine inspections with drug-sniffing dogs to intercept packages that contain marijuana and other illegal drugs. More than 90 percent of the seized packages contain marijuana. Police confiscated 58 parcels last year and have found 38 so far this year.

Determining where the high-grade marijuana comes from can be difficult, if not impossible. And even in a state like Michigan, there's no way to tell how many medical marijuana plants are growing, have been grown, or if it's being funneled to patients or to the illegal drug trade.

Michigan law contains a clause that bars state inspections of medical marijuana. It was designed that way to protect the rights of patients, advocates said. According to the law, a patient can possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana -- or a reasonable amount to manage his medical condition -- and up to 12 plants.

A September 2011 report from the now-defunct National Drug Intelligence Center stated that "some of the increase in marijuana availability and cultivation ... is likely the result of criminals exploiting Michigan's medical marijuana law."

"One person can have 12 plants. If they do it right, that'll yield 12 pounds of marijuana in a year," said Michigan State Police Detective Lt. Dave Cook. "They're selling to anybody that's got money to give."

Increasing support

Mr. Beck considered giving up marijuana when his daughter was a toddler. Smoking it a few times a week could have had dire consequences, possibly resulting in a loss of custody.

"I took my first hit of a marijuana cigarette in my dorm room at the University of Detroit in 1970. I liked it and I didn't see any reason to quit except when my daughter got to be about 3 years old," said Mr. Beck, who has his medical marijuana card and lives in Detroit, where the drug is decriminalized. "I got to thinking that maybe I should quit and go into the closet and set a good example, and I thought long and hard about it, and I just said, 'No, I'm going to be real about it.' She probably smelled marijuana smoke every month of her life."

The decision isn't uncommon among baby boomers, Mr. Beck said. Reefer madness hysteria is dying with the elderly.

"A fair amount of the baby boomer population -- not everybody -- a lot of those parents use marijuana," he said. "Kids are born, they get older, and they learn from parents that some parents just don't quit smoking marijuana."

According to a Pew Research Center study published in April, 52 percent of Americans favor marijuana legalization. It is the first time in four decades that a majority has favored the issue. It's a stark contrast to the 12 percent of people who favored legalization in 1969.

The study shows that support for legalization increases with each generation: the elderly (32 percent); baby boomers (50 percent); Generation X (54 percent); and Millennials (65 percent). Of people polled, 72 percent agreed enforcing marijuana laws costs more than it is worth.

Mr. Beck, a retired insurance executive and former Republican, said the conversation has been shifting toward legalization for some time. It's only natural as more people see marijuana used as a medicine and in their communities, he added.

Protecting kids

That mind-set is dangerous, especially for teenagers, who assume that marijuana is legal in Michigan, said Charlene McGunn, executive director of the Chippewa Valley Coalition for Youth & Families. The coalition is promoting "Mobilizing Michigan -- Protecting Our Kids from Marijuana Campaign" to educate people about the dangers of youth marijuana use.

Studies have shown that marijuana affects teenage brains more drastically than that of an adult. Ms. McGunn also said heavy marijuana use leads to poor performance in school and substance abuse issues later in life.

"A year ago, we conducted focus groups of about 250 high school students, and we also administered a state survey. The results were alarming," she said. "Kids now see, at least in Michigan, marijuana as safer than tobacco. They told us in focus groups there is nothing wrong with using marijuana because it is medicine, it's a plant."

There's no denying that marijuana is everywhere. Law enforcement, marijuana advocates and staunch opponents of the drug agree that access to marijuana is universal. With the help of advocates, it only will continue its journey into the mainstream, Mr. Beck said.

"It permeates everywhere. It's not any one demographic or cohort. It's something people like to do, and they've been doing it for a long, long time," he said.

"It's just a fact of life."

nation - electionspresident - health

Block News Alliance consists of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. Kris Turner is a reporter for The Blade. First Published May 27, 2013 4:00 AM


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