Cover Story: Homeboy or Homegrown?

Reap what you sow, if you dare


Whether your next joint comes from home or your homeboy, growing your own will break down the endos and outs of the dope game.

Undercover drug narcs, tapped telephones and street surveillance cameras can make buying marijuana a big hassle.

For some, homegrown marijuana is the solution. But marijuana cultivation involves serious legal hazards.

Before it was illegal, marijuana grew on the side of the road just like any other weed. It's easy and inexpensive to grow.

So you want to be a gardener
There are two options when deciding to grow weed: outside or indoors. Outdoor growing can be risky. Pick someplace not readily visible, perhaps hidden among other kinds of plants. But beware of nosy neighbors and police in helicopters.

The safest way to cultivate marijuana is a grow-box in a closet or some other place out of everyday view.

"Cheech" is a twentysomething recent graduate of Miami University with a bachelor's degree in chemistry and microbiology and a minor in molecular genetics. He's been growing weed for 10 months.

"I'm growing it because it's a hobby, something to do," he says. "I did it to see if it was really that much of a challenge."

Cheech grows marijuana for his personal use in order to save the expense of buying it. He started with two plants, "taking seeds out of any bag of weed." Cultivating weed isn't expensive, he says.

"What I spent on supplies would amount to an eighth-ounce of some good dope," Cheech says.

"Chong" is a fortysomething former grower. He advises growers "to get the best seeds, to get the best grade. You don't want to end up with a headache."

Seeds from various strands of marijuana offer the possibility of plants with varying levels of potency, taste and mildness.

"Some people order seeds over the Internet," Cheech says.

The ideal time in Ohio for growing marijuana outside is March through October. When growing indoors, wait until plants sprout, then start them on a light cycle. A $6, 15-watt fluorescent light bulb provides all the light indoor plants require.

"To get the highest potency of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the active ingredient in cannabis, they have to be on cycles of light," Cheech says.

Watering the plants only a couple times a week is best, because excessive watering can decrease the concentration of THC, he says.

"When the plants start to bud, switch them to a normal light cycle, a schedule of light and dark, alternating equal hours of daylight and darkness," Cheech says.

Chong, anxious smoker that he is, used to smoke the leaves of his plants, instead of waiting for buds to appear.

"The leaves gave me a slight buzz," he says.

If 10 months after planting — because of love, caring and patience — buds appear, don't grab some Tops or a pipe just yet. Drying the plant is the final step before rolling, lighting and smoking. Cut plants at the roots and hang them upside-down in a burlap sack or a brown paper bag, extracting the water.

"The resin on the actual bud is the THC, which gets you high," Cheech says. "In a natural outside habitat, the resin is used by the plant as a defense mechanism so animals won't eat it. Good weed should be green, but light green because of the resin crystals on the bud."

Weed seeds must be replanted every year; the plant can't re-germinate.

The cost of getting caught
Know your risks. The penalties for cultivating marijuana vary from state to state.

Kentucky ranks third in cultivation of marijuana in the United States, and its crop is reportedly more profitable than tobacco. For a first-time offender, cultivating less than five plants is a misdemeanor in Kentucky, carrying a $500 fine and a year in jail. On subsequent offenses, the penalties increase to one to five years in prison. In Indiana, cultivating 30 grams or more is a felony punishable by six months to three years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

In Ohio, the penalties aren't as stiff. If the amount involved is less than 199 grams, cultivation of marijuana is a fourth degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $250 fine. Cultivation of 200 grams or more is a felony in Ohio; penalties, depending on the amount, can reach five years in prison. In 1997, the most recent figures available, Hamilton County ranked fifth in the state for marijuana growth, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

For a brief time, Ohio law recognized a medical marijuana defense. Persons arrested for growing dope could argue medical necessity and let a court decide. But the Ohio General Assembly revoked the medical marijuana defense in 1997.

Large areas of cultivated marijuana are often found in rural areas of Southeastern Indiana, Southeastern Kentucky and Appalachian Ohio.

Police use different methods to bust growers. The most controversial is infrared thermal imaging, used from outside a building to measure the heat inside. Police sometimes suspect that parts of buildings showing high levels of heat contain special lights for growing marijuana.

But thermal imaging can't distinguish between legal and illegal activities. In January 2000, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld an appellate court ruling that thermal imaging without a warrant violates a homeowner's Fourth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution.

Police have also been known to look at utility bills to see if an abnormal amount of electricity is being used in a building — another possible indication of marijuana cultivation.

But for small operations, neither thermal imaging nor snooping on utility bills will give a grower away. A 15-watt fluorescent bulb doesn't give off much heat.

"My heat bill hasn't changed at all," Cheech says.

Mike Crabtree is director of the Domestic Cannabis Eradication and Suppression Program (DCE/SP) of Indiana. The Hoosier State was "number 3 in marijuana cultivation in 2002," he says. DCE/SP receives money from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency because of the program's success.

The largest outdoor plot found in Indiana last year was in Orange County near French Lick. Crabtree says Indiana had 800 arrests for growing marijuana in 2002, including 350 for indoor cultivation. Most of the arrests were for growing 50 or fewer plants.

A man in Greenwood, Ind. who was serious about his dope installed six surveillance cameras around his house. Nonetheless he was busted with 1,000 plants.

Crabtree says DCE/SP's best method of catching indoor growers has been a tip line. He says infrared thermal imaging is the last resort and he's used it only once in 10 years for detecting marijuana cultivation.

The eradication efforts of Kentucky and Ohio are "not the same concentrated efforts as Indiana," with less emphasis on prosecution, according to Crabtree.

"Kentucky just goes out, finds the dope, cuts it down and burns it," he says. "We try to make an arrest, not just get the dope."

But Kentucky does what it can, according to Sgt. Ronnie Ray of the Kentucky State Police.

"We have such a rural state, there are so many places people can plant," he says. "Trying to wait 'til the grower comes back is hard and labor intensive."

A 1999 U.S. Sentencing Commission Report found 22 percent of defendants convicted of drug offenses in federal courts were involved with marijuana. Federal sentencing guidelines for marijuana cultivation are not based on the actual weight of plants but rather on an arbitrarily assigned weight equivalent. A person convicted of growing 50 plants can receive a prison sentence up to four times longer than an individual convicted of growing 49 plants.

Growing marijuana will prevent interaction with the underground drug market and prices inflated by prohibition. But the risks are just as serious. ©

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