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HILO, Hawai'i — Large-scale marijuana cultivation in Hawai'i and particularly on the Big Island is moving indoors, and in the past two years police have uncovered increasing numbers of sophisticated indoor farming operations believed to produce millions of dollars worth of illegal crops.
The number of police raids on indoor growing operations on the Big Island nearly quadrupled from 2005 to 2006, and is on a course to increase again this year, according to statistics provided by Big Island police Vice Division.
"Instead of just setting up plants out in the yard and growing, or in a greenhouse and letting the sunlight come through, guys are building roofs and buying tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment to grow marijuana plants inside," said East Hawai'i vice officer John Weber, a veteran of more than 150 marijuana investigations.
Statewide, the National Drug Intelligence Center also reports the number of indoor marijuana grow sites appears to be increasing, with the number of plants seized in indoor grow operations jumping sharply from 3,950 plants in 2005 to 12,358 plants in 2006.
There have been notable marijuana seizures on other islands, including the seizure of more than 6,000 plants on Kaua'i earlier this year, but the Big Island is believed to account for most of the state's marijuana crop. The island's large tracts of open land and isolated rural subdivisions offer privacy for growers that may not be available on other islands.
This year Big Island police have discovered a number of homes and one Puna warehouse devoted to marijuana farming. Some operations featured grow lights equipped with timers, watering systems connected to the plumbing and growers who use sophisticated plant cloning technology, according to police and court records.
The controlled indoor environments allow growers to produce a new crop as often as every 90 days, according to the newest Hawai'i High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Drug Market Analysis.
HIDING SMELL, POWER USE
Farmers have been using air filters to try to mask the pungent smell of the plants, and fans to circulate air within the farming operations. In some cases the growers tamper with their electrical connections to steal electricity from the power grid and hide how much power their grow lights and other equipment are consuming.
To create more room to grow, marijuana farmers often toss up unpermitted additions to homes or additional buildings, police said.
In one case last year, police say an alleged Big Island marijuana grower would set up other farmers in business, going so far as to erect greenhouses on other people's properties and provide the seedlings to get new farmers started. The participants would then either split the profits or divide up the harvested marijuana, Weber said.
"It's a business. You can make a lot of money from marijuana, guys are making a lot of money," Weber said. "When you have an indoor grow with 500 plants in it, that's not some poor guy who has a medical condition and has a permit and needs to have his marijuana to make himself feel better. That's some guy who's trying to make money off selling dope to our kids and our family members."
Big Island Vice Detective Steven Correia said marijuana farmers have been moving indoors mostly because helicopter eradication missions by state, county and federal authorities have been successful in uprooting a large share of the outdoor crops.
In one case in 2006, police yanked up about 50 adult plants from the boundaries of a lot in Hawaiian Paradise Park, and then received a tip earlier this year that the couple living at the property had moved the operation indoors.
When officers raided the same property in June, they found another 75 plants and an indoor growing operation, according to court records.
Court records show police frequently identify indoor growers simply by flying over properties and spotting marijuana plants. In other cases, informants tip off the authorities.
EASIER TO PROSECUTE
Indoor operations may be harder to find than outdoor marijuana patches, but authorities say it is much easier to identify and prosecute the owners of pot plants being grown indoors.
It is also easier for prosecutors to file forfeiture proceedings to seize land used for indoor growing operations, said Big Island Deputy Prosecutor Mitch Roth. With indoor grows, it is difficult for pot farmers to invoke the so-called "innocent owner" defense and claim they didn't know the plants were there, he said.
"It shows they are in this for the business, they're in this to make money," Roth said of the large-scale indoor operations.
Court records show it is not uncommon for police to raid a home and seize plants, and then return to the same address later, arrest the same people, and seize more plants.
Farmers may go right back to growing after a raid, but when they lose land, money and other property in forfeiture proceedings "it does make an impression on people," Roth said.
'$500,000' RANCH HAUL
One forfeiture pending in Hilo Circuit Court involves Volcano resident David Finley Jr., 65, who was arrested in 2006 after police allegedly seized 290 plants from Finley's 29-acre Volcano ranch.
Finley was arrested a second time on Jan. 29 in another raid on his Volcano property that turned up what police say is the largest seizure of dried marijuana and hashish "in recent memory."
Officers allegedly found three indoor growing operations on the property, including a greenhouse attached to Finley's home, equipment for manufacturing hashish and more than 75 pounds of dried marijuana and other drugs.
The dried marijuana found in a bedroom included 127 sealed 1-ounce packets labeled with prices of $280 to $300 each, according to court records.
Authorities estimated the haul was worth $500,000, although Finley told police he considered the marijuana to be worthless. He told police that "I have been having a very hard time selling this," according to court records.
Finley was charged with two counts of first-degree commercial promotion of marijuana, which is punishable by up to 20 years in prison, and also faces other drug and drug paraphernalia charges.
Authorities also filed to seize the Volcano ranch property. That forfeiture is being opposed by Finley's wife, Mary, who said in court records that she "did not know such alleged activities were taking place on our property."
SEIZING CASH, 'TOYS'
Since there is big money involved, police frequently seize large sums of cash and "toys," such as off-road vehicles, cars, trucks and watercraft in raids on growing operations, according to police and court records.
More ominously, police frequently seize firearms when they raid the farming operations.
"A lot of them arm themselves, because they're going to protect their livelihood ... so they protect themselves against the competition, or people coming to rip off their marijuana," Weber said.
There are critics of the long-running campaign against marijuana, including longtime pro-marijuana activist Roger Christie, who is running for mayor of the Big Island. Christie's Hawai'i Cannabis THC Ministry advocates use of marijuana for religious purposes, an activity Christie argues is protected under the Constitution.
Christie contends the overflights police use to spot the illegal plants amount to unconstitutional searches.
"We've got to bring back respect for the constitution and the right to privacy, or tyranny becomes the law of the land," he said.
Such arguments do not impress Weber, who served 46 search warrants last fiscal year and was chosen the Hawai'i Police Department's 2007 Officer of the Year by the Hawai'i State Law Enforcement Officials Association.
Weber said police have to keep illegal drug trafficking in check for the benefit of the entire community.
"They can say whatever they like out there, but my job as a law enforcement officer is to enforce the law, and marijuana ... unless they have a medical permit and under seven plants, is against the law, and as long as it is, that's my job and that's what I'm going to do," he said.