With three months still to go, teams of federal, state, and local law-enforcement officials have already confiscated a mind-bending haul of marijuana plants from indoor and outdoor grows across Washington this year, they say. The remarkable seizure of 242,000 plants—38,000 from one Central Washington garden alone—is altogether about 100,000 more plants than all of last year's record confiscation, says Lt. Rich Wiley of the Washington State Patrol narcotics program, pushing the Evergreen State ever higher on the list of America's top dope-producing regions. Almost 250 suspects were arrested in the past nine months for tending or aiding the operations, most of them outdoor grows east of the Cascades.
In part, the 2007 figures—"more reports are still coming in," Wiley said last week—reflect an ongoing invasion of B.C. Bud growers formerly based in Canada. Says U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency spokesperson Rhett Fonseca: "That's been the trend since after Sept. 11. With increased border security, growers figure it's more convenient to move their operations here."
As it is, according to federal figures from 2006, when around 140,000 plants were confiscated, Washington already ranked No. 2, behind California, in U.S. indoor grows and No. 5 in outdoor gardens. With a street value estimated by the state patrol at $472 million so far, the 2007 law-enforcement harvest has turned marijuana, unofficially, into Washington's No. 4 cash crop, compared to the latest (2005) available figures from the state Department of Agriculture. Dope beats out wheat ($456 million) but trails potatoes ($535 million). Apples, at $1.2 billion, top the list.
"I don't know if there is necessarily more marijuana being grown here," says Wiley, "or if we're just getting better at finding it." Four years ago, the statewide eradication effort turned up only 66,500 plants. Now, law-enforcement agencies are sharing intelligence and working in greater partnership, Wiley says, while the National Guard provided more choppers this year to fly over illegal grows in national parks and forests.
DEA figures show another trend: fewer gardens, but more plants. "They [grows] are getting bigger and bigger," says Fonseca, indicating the operations are more sophisticated. There's an uptick in violence as well, officials say. In July, Kevin Meas, 23, and Linda Nguyen, 20, were shot dead in an Everett home where an 800-plant grow was found. "Frankly, I've never heard of a homicide over a home grow around here," says Fonseca. The crime remains unsolved.
Federal and local agencies have been kept busy busting indoor grows around Puget Sound. In one example—a two-year drug and money trail that led from one major case to another—officials took down at least three sizable grow and distribution rings here, according to court records and interviews. The sequential cases brought more than 40 indictments and led to multimillion-dollar seizures of plants, dope, cash, and property.
Also, in April, almost 3,000 plants were confiscated and six suspects arrested in a raid on Kent Garden Supplies, which provided plants, equipment, and gardening advice—sometimes on credit, until the crops came in—to indoor growers, prosecutors say. The government alleges that more than $5 million in drug money was laundered through store and personal bank accounts since 2003.
A South King County/North Pierce County house-to-house grow operation busted earlier this year led to seizure of 3,700 indoor plants, $100,000 worth of growing equipment, and almost $300,000 in cash. The DEA and the King County Sheriff's Office identified 12 homes where grows were under way.
Among eight persons indicted in that case was an Oklahoma man named Dac Hoang Tong, found with $193,000 in the trunk of his car. He said he'd earlier earned another $65,000 selling homegrown marijuana, money he badly needed to pay for cancer treatments, according to his attorney, Robert Leen. Dac, who is awaiting sentencing, is among the new breed of growers moving in, federal prosecutors say. "Dac stated that he came to Seattle after visiting a Web site that advertised Seattle as a good place to make quick money by growing marijuana," says Assistant U.S. Attorney Lisca Borichewski. In court papers last month, she noted that Dac's arrival is "part of a more frequently occurring practice where individuals from the mid-West and East coast are moving specifically to the Western District of Washington with the intent of setting up marijuana grow operations."
The grows in the Dac case "were established in thriving neighborhoods [Renton, Puyallup, Auburn, and Federal Way] where people were raising their children, and with houses in close proximity to one another," Borichewski says. "In several instances during the execution of search warrants, neighbors in these communities came out and thanked law enforcement for dismantling the grow operations."
Larger indoor grows are increasingly tended by Vietnamese like Dac, officials say. "I don't want to indict the Vietnamese community because we're talking about a relatively small number of people," says the state patrol's Wiley. "But that's what you find—Vietnamese coming out of Canada, in particular, moving their B.C. Bud grows here."
Mexican narcotics rings are frequently behind the larger outdoor grows, says Wiley. "Those rings are also involved in meth, coke, and heroin as well," he says, moving drugs border to border. "It's all about money, naturally," with comparably little risk for kingpins. "They hire migrant workers to tend the grows, and they [workers] are usually the ones getting busted." Generally, one mature plant can produce close to a pound of marijuana which, depending on potency and where it's sold, can go for $2,000 to $4,000, Wiley says.
Major grows are typically found in Washington's wide-open spaces, such as the 38,000-plant garden taken down this year on the Yakama Nation, hidden away without the tribe's knowledge. That was the biggest haul in 2007, officials say, but not a record: 60,500 mature dope plants weighing 30 tons, valued on the street at $35 million, were found on the reservation in 2004. It was the largest-ever plant seizure in the state and the fourth largest in U.S. history. Growers "damage a lot of public spaces, the forests and parks," says Wiley. "They divert water, kill off natural vegetation, trees, and animals, and they're almost always armed. It's the same in Oregon and California."
As the larger state, California has more grows, of course, says Wiley. But Washington—as evidenced by the record number of plants eradicated this year—is an increasingly popular garden spot. "Marijuana is best grown in a relatively dry, higher altitude," Wiley says. "The eastern slopes of the Cascades offer up nice, long sunny days during the growing season.
"They're producing much more pot than is 'needed' here," he adds, "so we've become an exporting state. It's a dubious honor we hope to correct."