Western Weed Is Taking Over the Pot Market in Florida

Cuban immigrants are heading to legal states like Colorado and California to grow dank bud and sell it back east.

|
Apr 27 2016, 4:00am

A legal pot-growing operation in Colorado. Photo via Flickr user Brett Levin

In early April, a couple months after Eladio Hernandez Ponce purchased a two-bedroom ranch-style house south of Pueblo, Colorado, deputies with the Pueblo County Sheriff's Office narcotics special investigation unit executed a search warrant on his new abode. Inside, investigators found nearly 200 marijuana plants in various stages of growth, along with numerous supplies and construction materials they believe were to be used to expand the operation, according to a sheriff's bulletin.

Ponce and fellow residents Anaili Garcia Toledo and Elio Hernandez Delgado told the deputies they were medical-marijuana growers, but they were unable to provide any proof they could legitimately grow pot for patients, the sheriff's office says. A week later, on April 13, deputies arrested the three Cubans, who had recently relocated from Miami, Florida, charging them with felony marijuana cultivation.

It was a familiar scenario for 35-year-old Ponce. Exactly a year ago, he was arrested in Homestead, Florida, on felony charges of manufacturing cannabis with intent to sell and residing in a home used for drug trafficking. But he's not the only former Floridian to get nabbed for illegally growing weed in the legal pot state of Colorado.

A photo of Ponce's alleged illicit grow operation, courtesy Pueblo County Sheriff's Office

Sergeant Jeremy Bacor, who until recently was head of Pueblo's narcotics special investigation unit, tells me 12 people who previously resided in Florida have been arrested in seven separate illegal marijuana grow operations in the county since the end of March. Five of the alleged illegal growers are of Cuban descent, including Ponce and his two cohorts.

"We get people from a lot of states coming to Colorado since marijuana was fully legalized," Bacor explains. "Some are people looking to skew the lines and are growing for the black market. The recent trend has been individuals from Florida."

The influx of illegal pot growers from Florida to places like Pueblo augurs a shift in the black market for indoor, high-grade marijuana in the Sunshine State. The hodgepodge of pot laws nationwide—four states allow regulated access to recreational marijuana, while 23 states, plus Washington, DC, now permit some form of medical marijuana—has offered some old-school pot peddlers like Ponce new opportunities. And despite the pro-legalization argument that easing off prohibition might put shady dealers out of business, the reality is looking a bit more complicated than that.

Marc Kleiman, professor emeritus of public policy for the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, says black-market marijuana will continue to thrive until the federal government legalizes the drug. "If there was national legalization, then the illicit market would go away like it did for alcohol," Kleiman tells me. "There's not much moonshining left."

In Florida, where only a non-psychoactive form of cannabis is currently legal for medical use, a new ballot initiative is in the works to legalize more potent marijuana for very sick people. But Kleiman believes a legal medical-marijuana market would only eliminate a fraction of the black-market clientele, and that ending prohibition in piecemeal fashion leaves the door open for growers to take their cannabis across state lines and sell it in black markets up the East Coast. "There is still a black market in Georgia and New York," he explains. "If most of the marijuana grown in Florida is going to New York, legalization won't change anything."

The renewed effort to make Florida the next medical-marijuana state comes at a time when police departments across the peninsula are launching search-and-destroy missions for illegal grow houses, which may just be encouraging importation from other states.

In March, 22 Cubans were arrested on racketeering charges for their involvement in an indoor marijuana-cultivation network that operated ten grow houses across Hillsborough and two neighboring counties in central Florida. During a week's worth of raids, narcotics investigators seized 591 plants weighing 872 pounds and 46 pounds of packaged marijuana worth an estimated $2.3 million on the street.

At a press conference announcing the arrests, Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee said the wholesale prices for a pound of Florida grown indoor weed go between $2,000 to $2,500. "Do the math," he instructed assembled reporters. "There is a tremendous amount of dirty money to be made in this business. It is incredible how big these operations are, especially in Florida."

In a phone interview, Captain Frank Losat, head of Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office special investigations division, tells me Cuban growers have been running well-organized indoor grow houses for several years now. "We have to address a multitude of crimes these grow houses bring to the community," he says. "We've had a series of home invasions where grow houses were targeted. You don't know who your neighbors are until the violence occurs."

During the yearlong investigation dubbed "Operation Hydro Hustlers," detectives were able to gather evidence showing the 22 Cubans were involved in a marijuana ring, according to Losat, "We started to link people together," he says. "You would see them at various houses together conducting business."

Detectives tailed the suspects traveling to Garden Hydro Empire, a hydroponic-equipment store owned by Jorge Tellez, one of the Cubans arrested in the racketeering probe, and also watched unload indoor marijuana-growing equipment, including lighting systems and circuit boards used to bypass electric company meters, into the ten houses, Losat says.

"They ran it like a business," the captain adds. "They got up by six or seven in the morning to tend to the houses, making sure the plants were growing, and running errands around town to buy various supplies. They were very well organized."

Mark Santiago, a Miami-based investor and instructor for Cannabis Career Institute, an online and seminar school that teaches pot-industry aspirants how to do business in states that have legalized medical marijuana, says the heat from Florida law enforcement has definitely cut into the state's illegal grow house industry.

"Five years ago, almost all the illicit marijuana in Florida was homegrown," Santiago says. "Nowadays, only thirty to forty percent is Florida bud. Most of it is being brought in from Colorado and California."

The Cubans who continue to operate grow houses in Florida are typically those who have only been in the US for a couple of years, he believes.

According to annual domestic-eradication reports by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), indoor marijuana production in Florida declined between 2012 and 2014. The agency eradicated 382 indoor operations and a combined 20,762 plants in 2014 compared to 540 indoor grow houses and 31,499 plants in 2012.

One former Miami grower who's now active out West bolsters Santiago's claims. A Cuban who arrived in south Florida in the mid 1980s, the man says he grew illegal marijuana in various houses in Miami-Dade from late 2004 through 2012, when one of his buddies was busted tending plants inside one of their homes. "We had a good run while it lasted," he recalls. "We would only grow twenty-five plants at a time, enough for five pounds. We emphasized quality over quantity."

Since his friend was a first-time offender, the guy pleaded no contest and had to serve two years probation, according to the former grower. Meanwhile the self-avowed cannabis connoisseur made connections in Northern California in an area known as the Emerald Triangle, where an abundance of high-grade marijuana is produced. For the past five years, he's been importing pot to south Florida.

As you might expect, he declines to go into detail about how he transports the weed, but it seems to be resonating back home.

"Most of the stuff we are getting on our front doorstep is West Coast bud," he says. "It has displaced local growing."

Follow Francisco Alvarado on Twitter.

More VICE
VICE Channels