With grow houses back in the headlines recently after a Zephyrhills bust, Sheriff Bob White explained some of the inner workings of how authorities prosecute such cases.
The Pasco County Sheriff's Office dismantled 33 grow houses in 2007, White said. Many of the operations involved large homes with three or four bedrooms.
Virtually no area of Pasco County or the state has been exempt from the phenomenon of cultivating marijuana under artificial lights. Cases here have ranged from upscale homes in the Aristida subdivision in the Port Richey area to mobile homes to sheds.
Money motivates the criminals despite the high cost of setting up heavy-duty equipment. "It generates an awful lot of money. A pound of marijuana grown like this will almost sell for about the same price as a pound of cocaine," White said.
A change in the law this year was a big help to law enforcement agencies in storing the vast amounts of evidence seized from grow houses, White added.
In the past, as many as 200 items might be seized from one grow house operation, Sgt. Stephen Frick from the sheriff's office Vice and Narcotics Unit explained.
"There's all kinds of evidence taken out of grow houses, from air conditioning units to trash cans to blowers to lighting," White said. The sheriff's office rapidly was running out of storage space for the large items. Special shelves have to be ordered to withstand the heavy loads.
"You can't get these at Wal-Mart," White said, pounding on the shelf.
The items usually remain in storage for months or years as the case winds through courts.
The change in the law this summer gave law enforcement agencies the flexibility to record videos or still photos of much of the grow house gear instead of physically impounding the evidence. The sheriff's office now might have to store about a 10th the amount of seized items for cases filed after July 2008.
"This is what people don't see, take a look - it goes all the way up," White said as he pointed to impounded items rising nearly 29 feet, close to the rafters of the property evidence building in Land O' Lakes.
Some 200 to 300 items each day already flow into the property evidence department, supervisor Linda Hypes said.
The tremendous volume of items seized from grow houses threatened to swamp the operation before the law changed this year, White said.
The situation was even worse before the new property evidence building opened in April 2007. Before then, the old, cramped Dade City jail had to suffice for storage.
"In fact, when I took office, we couldn't even inventory property evidence here," White said. "Since then these folks have rallied, and they have just done an incredible job of straightening this out," White said about Hypes and her staff.
"Handling all this property and all this evidence is an absolutely daunting task for these people," White said. "You can't make errors. You can't make omissions. You can't lose things. We can't just go pile it in a garage someplace. It all has to be cataloged. It all has to be cared for. It all has to be entered into the computer.
"When the case is over, they have to create a destruction order. A judge has to sign off on it. And then they have to destroy it and take it all out of the computer again."
White hailed the reforms in evidence laws. "This is going to be very important that we'll be able to video and then dispose of everything going forward. It's just a blessing to us. Where would we put it?"
Frick came up with a proposal to give any usable items to the Pasco County School District once the gear is no longer needed as evidence, White added.
"Give it to the schools, their horticulture programs, their technical programs," White said. "It saves them money as well."
Homes can be forfeited in grow house cases, but that brings up another issue, White said. Questions arise about whether a home is livable after the potential health hazards created from the grow house operation. A case becomes a first-degree felony if a child lived in the house while the marijuana was cultivated.
In the meantime, authorities appeal for the public's help in ferreting out grow houses, White said.
"One of the things we talk about at the Citizens Academy is things the public can do. Let us know if they notice people that are stealing power, or there are extra air conditioning units attached to the house."
One clue might be several window air conditioners in a home equipped with central air. Another clue might be windows sealed or blacked out. The house often is vacant, yet a person might visit infrequently and then leave after several hours.
With the economy souring, the sheriff wonders if more grow house operations will sprout up. Individuals sometimes cultivate the marijuana, but other cases point to cartels.
"We haven't been in an economic downturn like this in yours or my lifetime," White said.