Marijuana Farmers Could Face Stiffer Penalties

TALLAHASSEE - Lawmakers are considering a bill that would enhance the penalties for people who grow marijuana in their house.

Florida ranks second only to California in the number of grow house operations, a trend that has exploded in recent years.

Records from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement show Hernando County contributed 20 of the 188 operations broken up in Florida last year.

In 2006, Hernando County had three.

Under current law, growers with fewer than 300 plants are charged with cultivation of marijuana versus a more serious trafficking charge.

The Marijuana Grow House Eradication Act would drastically drop that threshold and make it a second-degree felony to have 25 or more plants in a house.

Florida's statewide prosecutor, William Shepherd, applauds the measure as an "excellent response" to the burgeoning trend among drug dealers.

"It shows a reaction to the modern reality that these grow houses are multi-million dollar operations," he said.

House Bill 173 also cracks down on grow house operators who rear their children among the leafy plants.

Shepherd says youngsters are at risk not only from the chemicals and fertilizers used to boost productivity, but also from armed rivals.

The bill's co-sponsor, Rep. Nick Thompson, R-Fort Myers, gave a presentation Tuesday that included a picture of bullet holes above a crib in a grow house.

"When you decide to raise small children with $100,000 of contraband, you put them in jeopardy," Shepherd said.

The presence of children hikes up the trafficking charge to a first-degree felony.

Another target of the bill is the financiers, who actually buy the house and support its operation.

Current law treats them as accessories, but Thompson's proposal would change that to a third-degree felony.

Law enforcement's crackdown on outdoor operations during the past decade drove growers inside.

That's opened the door to more sophisticated setups that produce high-quality hydroponically grown marijuana.

The going rate is about $4,000 to $6,000 per pound and is considered worth its weight in cocaine.

The bill has passed all House committees and is ready for a vote by the chamber. It still has three committees to pass in the Senate.

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