Drug Intelligence Center
Domestic Cannabis Cultivation Assessment 2007
Cannabis Cultivation Trends
Some Mexican DTOs are shifting cannabis cultivation away from intense eradication areas--even into eastern states--a shift that may enable these DTOs to further increase domestic cannabis cultivation. Mexican DTOs are relocating some of their operations to locations north and east of their principal operating areas in California, seemingly to avoid improved aerial detection and eradication in the state. This move will enable them to increase cultivation in remote areas that have never been cultivated. In 1999 Mexican DTOs began relocating some of their operations from northern California into Oregon, Washington, and central Idaho. In 2003 Mexican DTOs established more cannabis grow sites in Idaho and in areas east of the Mississippi River, such as remote areas of Arkansas and Georgia. Recently, these groups have established outdoor grow sites in other areas of Arizona and in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. Mexican cannabis growers operating large-scale grows east of the Mississippi River are increasingly being linked to Mexican DTOs operating in California and Mexico, suggesting a coordinated effort with respect to domestic cannabis cultivation by Mexican DTOs that now spans the United States. Many of these groups maintain direct contact and affiliation with larger DTOs in California and Mexico and maintain a level of coordination among operating areas, moving labor and materials to the various sites--even across the country--as needed.
Mexican DTOs' extensive use of public lands for cannabis cultivation is increasing, even in areas that generally are not considered conducive to planting and growing cannabis. Mexican DTOs commonly grow cannabis in remote areas of public lands, where there is limited law enforcement presence. The occurrence of cannabis cultivation on public lands has increased significantly over the past several years, largely the result of increased domestic cultivation operations by Mexican DTOs. In 2005 cannabis cultivation on National Forest System (NFS) lands nationwide rose sharply, reaching the highest levels ever observed by law enforcement--a 49.6 percent increase from 744,276 plants eradicated in 2004 to 1,113,446 plants in 2005. This trend continued in 2006 as eradication rose an additional 26 percent between 2005 and 2006 (1,403,023). More cannabis plants were eradicated in national forests in California than in any other state nationwide in 2006 (1,133,563, or 81 percent of total NFS eradications), with most plants eradicated within the mountainous areas of Mendocino National Forest of northern California (405,399), followed by San Bernardino National Forest (157,994). NFS also reports significant cannabis eradication in national forests beyond California, specifically in Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky (148,828); and in Tonto National Forest in Arizona (65,947). No Mexican DTO activity has been reported in Kentucky (see Table 6, and Map 6 in Appendix B).
Following consecutive annual record-level eradication since 2004, some cultivators who previously limited their operations to areas with optimal weather, elevation, and slope characteristics have relocated to areas where growing conditions are less conducive to cannabis cultivation. For example, Department of the Interior (DOI) officials report that some cultivators are relocating from coastal areas that are well-suited for growing to California's inland foothills and more arid areas, planting under low-cover brush such as chaparral. Cultivators are also relocating to other nonconducive growing areas outside of California, including eastern Oregon, eastern Washington, eastern Idaho, and the western slope of the Rocky Mountains. Despite relocating to nontraditional growing areas, cultivators must maintain access to a water source. For instance, law enforcement reporting from San Bernardino County, California, indicates that a several-thousand-plant grow was found covering nearly 2 square miles after officials responded to a wildfire in Little Morongo Canyon. Although this area is particularly arid, the grow site was within a mile of a natural spring. Law enforcement officials expect that grow sites will continue to be established by cultivators at remote sites in nontypical growing areas as eradication efforts continue in traditional growing areas.
Mexican DTOs in California are producing higher potency marijuana from cannabis cultivated in some large outdoor grow sites, the result of improved cultivation techniques. In 2006 law enforcement reporting from several agencies revealed that some Mexican DTOs that had previously produced marijuana with average THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) levels of 2 or 3 percent from outdoor cultivated cannabis began achieving 8 to 12 percent THC levels by applying growing methods typically used by indoor growers of high potency cannabis. These DTOs typically use only select seeds from Mexico, prepare the seedlings in greenhouses, plant the seedlings outdoors before late April, separate male from female plants prior to pollination, and use high-nitrogen fertilizer. Moreover, these DTOs are increasingly using cloned starter plants (see text box), irrigation systems composed of black polyethylene (also known as PVC) drip lines extending to each plant, and pesticides. The higher potency marijuana produced from outdoor plants in California often is comparable in quality to Canada-produced BC Bud1 and commands twice the price of commercial-grade Mexican marijuana available in the region. Although data regarding the number of eradicated, higher potency outdoor grow sites are not available, this practice still appears to be limited but is likely to increase as other Mexican DTOs and U.S. Caucasian cannabis growers adopt these methods.
Outdoor cannabis cultivators are adapting their cultivation and harvesting methods in order to maximize profits and reduce the risk of eradication. In 2006 law enforcement officials in several areas of the country, particularly California and Tennessee, reported that cultivators were changing their cultivation process from a single planting to two-crop plantings with shortened growing cycles. Cultivators achieve two growing cycles by planting specific cannabis strains that mature faster or by planting seedlings earlier in the spring. Cultivators in California, for example, are planting cannabis that buds earlier than most varieties and matures as early as June or July. Cannabis that is cultivated in the spring is harvested in early July, and the plot is replanted, allowing for an additional harvest in September or October. Additionally, law enforcement officials have reported that cultivators are harvesting as many plants as practical, including marginally mature plants, immediately prior to the height of eradication season or before eradication efforts move into the area, in order to avoid the risk of an entire crop seizure (see Figure 1).
Outdoor cannabis cultivation by Caucasian criminal groups in western states is relatively low compared with that of Mexican DTOs; however, cultivation by Caucasian growers in Appalachian states is high and may be increasing. While Mexican DTOs dominate cannabis cultivation in western states, Caucasian criminal groups and independent growers control most cannabis cultivation in the Appalachian Region. Most of the criminal groups operating grow sites in Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia are typically composed of three to eight Caucasian males who are related along family lines. In fact, many of these family-based groups have been involved in marijuana cultivation and trafficking for decades, spanning several generations. Moreover, cannabis cultivation by Caucasian growers is often accepted by the local populace as a means for supplementing incomes in economically depressed Appalachian communities. Eradication efforts in many areas of Appalachia have increased in recent years; however, cultivation also appears to be increasing as cultivators relocate to areas where eradication efforts are less intense.
Domestic indoor cannabis cultivation is increasing in some areas of the country as growers attempt to avoid outdoor eradication and attain higher profits through production of indoor-grown, high potency marijuana. According to law enforcement reporting, vigorous outdoor cannabis eradication has caused many marijuana producers in areas of California and Tennessee to relocate indoors where production is more concealed (see text box). In addition to a reduced risk of detection, indoor cannabis cultivators benefit from higher profits because cultivation is a year-round process with four to six harvests per year and controlled conditions that enable growers to produce high quality marijuana that commands higher prices in most drug markets. For example, according to drug price data from the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) December 2006 National Illicit Drug Prices, domestic midgrade marijuana grown outdoors in Los Angeles sold for $700 to $750 per pound, whereas high potency marijuana sold for $2,500 to $6,000 per pound. This price difference is common in drug markets throughout the country. These factors have contributed to the sharp increase in indoor cultivation reported by law enforcement, evidenced by a 71 percent increase in indoor plant eradication from 2001 (236,128 plants) to 2006 (403,322 plants). Moreover, the number of indoor sites seized increased 38 percent from 2001 (2,379 sites) to 2006 (3,286 sites).
Many Canada-based Asian DTOs that cultivate cannabis at indoor grow sites are relocating from Canada to the United States. Canada-based Asian groups (primarily ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese groups) are operating an increasing number of indoor grow sites within the United States, predominantly in the Pacific Northwest and throughout much of California. However, indoor grow sites are emerging in northeastern states, including those in New England. To this end, preliminary law enforcement reporting suggests that some of the Asian-operated indoor grows in New England are linked to Asian organizations based in Canada. The emergence of Asian-operated indoor grows in northeastern states parallels the recent appearance of grow sites controlled by Asian DTOs in eastern Canada (Ontario and Quebec) reported by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP)--Asian-operated grow sites typically have been located in western Canada (British Colombia). The extent of this activity has been difficult for law enforcement to establish, since most Asian DTOs that cultivate cannabis in the United States are tight-knit, family-based groups that are difficult to infiltrate. Asian DTOs often conceal their indoor operations by purchasing or renting houses, modifying the structure for the purpose of cultivating high-grade cannabis, and quickly abandoning the premises after harvesting only four to six high potency crops. In many instances, these DTOs spend thousands of dollars to modify and equip their indoor grow sites. For example, Asian DTOs purchase and install advanced hydroponic growing equipment such as grow lights, automatically timed watering and fertilizing systems, and exhaust systems with large charcoal HEPA filters. Sophisticated operations often bypass electric meters, thereby eliminating high-energy usage readings, large electricity bills, and possible law enforcement scrutiny.
Cannabis cultivation in Florida has increased dramatically in recent years, led by an increasing number of indoor grow sites operated by Cuban DTOs and criminal organizations. Indoor cannabis cultivation occurs in many counties throughout Florida (see Map 7 in Appendix B) and greatly exceeds that of outdoor cultivation in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE). The predominance of indoor grows in Florida is evidenced by the number of indoor seizures (36,172 plants) compared with outdoor seizures (10,354 plants) in 2006 (see Table 7). The FDLE further reports that the number of indoor cannabis grows operated by Cuban organizations in South Florida has increased sharply and is the leading cause of the increase in indoor grow seizures between 2001 (210) and 2006 (384). Cuban organizations reportedly operate indoor grows throughout Broward, Collier, Hendry, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, and St. Lucie Counties in Florida. Cuban-operated indoor grows are not highly sophisticated but are somewhat advanced, often utilizing partial residence grows, single-room air conditioners or multiple air conditioning-units concealed behind fences, and insulated walls and windows designed to conceal the heat signature produced by grow lights.
1 BC Bud, which originally referred to sinsemilla grown in British Columbia, has become synonymous with high-grade marijuana from Canada. The THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) content of BC Bud ranges from an average of 10 to 15 percent but can be as high as 30 percent.
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