The Rise of Indoor Hydroponic Growing
Law enforcement attributes the increased interest in cultivating indoors partially to the heightened levels of outdoor eradication. The UNODC supports this theory in the 2006 World Drug Report by pointing out that prohibition itself has played an inadvertent role in an increase in THC potency with:
“Law enforcement action in the second half of the 1970’s to the early 1980’s appears to have inadvertently prompted other improvements in the product (cannabis). First, it reduced the availability and the quality of imported cannabis in many of the most important consumer markets, particularly the United States. Second, it seems to have pushed some domestic production indoors, and stimulated growers to focus on producing greater quality rather than quantity in order to evade detection. These developments prompted a revolution in production technology in the United States, which was later spread to Europe and beyond…”
It certainly wasn’t the first instance in which law enforcement had inadvertently increased potency and made an illicit drug more dangerous. Take, for instance, the DEA’s Meth/Ice fiasco.
In 2006 the UN World Drug Report estimated a total of 26 million meth addicts world wide, labeling meth as the most abused hard drug on earth. In the same year, America had an estimated 1.4 million meth addicts, with Australia perhaps optimistically claiming numbers in the region of 73,000.
Amphetamine was first synthesised in 1893, by Japanese chemist, Nagayoshi Nagai. Another Japanese scientist, Akiria Ogata, synthesised methamphetamine is its crystalline form in 1919. It was later used during World War II by the Japanese and the Germans chiefly to keep their tank drivers awake. Similarly meth was given to Allied bomber pilots to sustain them by fighting off fatigue and enhancing focus during long flights. The experiment failed because soldiers became agitated, could not channel their aggression and showed impaired judgment (authpr’s note: haha no kidding!).
From a chemical perspective, methamphetamine is amphetamine with a methyl group, if you’re interested in the science of it. But it’s pretty much like a high-octane gasoline versus a low-octane gasoline. Methamphetamine/meth, of course, is the high-octane version.
The key active used by bakers to manufacture amphetamine, Phenyl-2-propanone (P2P), became hard for clandestine bakers to access after U.S. legislators targeted the supply of precursors used in illegal amphetamine manufacture during the 1980’s. As a result, P2P became a regulated chemical, its sale subject to tight controls and authoritarian scrutiny meaning many illegal labs could no longer access P2P. The DEA led initiative to limit the supply of P2P had hit its target. Amphetamine production had been momentarily reduced.
However, US bakers then discovered that ephedrine (and pseudo ephedrine) -an ingredient found in over-the-counter cold remedies and readily available – produces meth, the high-octane version of amphetamine. The more potent, addictive, dangerous and insidious form of methyl would thus find its way to the streets as a result of DEA initiatives.
With P2P now hard to access it was inevitable that alternatives would be found and in attempting to close the door on amphetamine production, authorities had inadvertently opened the floodgates for a far more insidious drug – a drug that has more addicts than cocaine and heroin combined; a drug that creates a kind of psychosis unlike anything ever seen or experienced before, a psychosis and addiction that results in the most appalling physical deterioration (addicts end up with sores all over their bodies from having picked away at their skin, as well as rotting teeth referred to as “meth mouth”) and violent tendencies. By radically affecting the brain’s production of dopamine (the natural chemical release that makes you feel good), meth triggers a huge totally unnatural release of dopamine, so that when the user comes down their physical surrounds and psychological state seems so dull that all they crave is to be riding that intense high again. Whereas a crack high might last ten minutes, a meth high can last eight hours! When U.S. police raid homes they often find semi-comatose couch addicts; users who’ve crashed after days of tweaking out. According to one U.S. police officer “meth makes crack-cocaine look like a Hershey bar.”
In a July 18, 2007 speech to district attorneys, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said that “in terms of damage to children and to our society, meth is now the most dangerous drug in America?’
This paled by comparison to Asia where the Thai Thaksin Shinawatra Government initiated a series of controversial policies to counter a boom in Thailand’s illegal drugs market, particularly in meth. Research and statistics had indicated that some 2.5 – 6 million people were habitual drug users, with up to 3 million of still in school. Up to 2002, Thaksin’s anti-drug policies consisted of border blocking (most methamphetamine is produced in Myanmar), public education, sports, and promoting peer pressure against drug use – policies that are generally acknowledged to have been ineffective. In response, the Thaksin government launched on February 1, 2003, a suppression campaign that aimed to “rid every inch of the country” of drugs in 3 months. The policy consisted largely of gunning meth dealers down on the streets or in their homes through “ruthless implementation”. The government’s actions were presented as a response to a speech by King Bhumipol (2002) in which, using the term ‘war on drugs’ he commented on rising drug use. Privy Councilor Phichit Kunlawanit called on the government to use its majority to establish a special narcotics court, stating that ‘if we execute 60,000 the land will rise and our descendants will escape bad karma’ (Daily News 2003). The Thaksin Government then sycophantically reported that it aimed to eradicate illicit drugs before the king’s birthday (Siamrat 2003a). Provincial governors would be responsible for coordinating the effort and failure to do so would result in removal from office. In turn provincial officers threatened to sack high ranking local police officials if they failed to deliver the goods, who in turn, of course, put pressure on their underlings with the exact same threat. Nicholas Cheesman (2003 p. 30), from the Asian Legal Resource Centre, noted that financial incentives for the capture of drug suspects included rights to a proportion of seized property of drug traffickers by arresting officers, even if suspects were killed. Operating agencies were required to produce lists of suspects (effectively blacklists) to be used to measure efficiency in reaching targets formulated by the Ministry of Interior (Cheesman 2003 p. 29-31). Provincial governors were set targets of 25 per cent, 50 per cent and 75 per cent (originally 100 per cent) in February, March and April respectively. The criteria for a meth dealer was listed as those in possession of five or more meth pills known in Thailand as Shaba. Over the next seven weeks, press reports indicate that around 2,500 people were killed. The government claimed only around 50 of these deaths were at the hands of the police… the rest in self-defense (obviously at the hands of the police). Human rights groups placed the number far higher with some estimates as high as 14,000 extrajudicial executions over the course of the cleansing. Human rights reports said police with worrying consistency recovered two methamphetamine tablets from their bodies, well below the five needed for a charge of possession with intent to supply. The New York Times reported on April 8, 2003:
Since the death of 9-year-old Chakraphan, there have been frequent reports in the Thai press of summary executions and their innocent victims. There was the 16-month-old girl who was shot dead along with her mother, Raiwan Khwanthongyen. There was the pregnant woman, Daranee Tasanawadee, who was killed in front of her two young sons. There was the 8-year-old boy, Jirasak Unthong, who was the only witness to the killing of his parents as they headed home from a temple fair. There was Suwit Baison, 23, a cameraman for a local television station, who fell to his knees in tears in front of Mr. Thaksin and begged for an investigation into the killing of his parents. His stepfather had once been arrested for smoking marijuana, Mr. Suwit said. When the police offered to drop the charge if he would admit to using methamphetamines, he opted instead to pay the $100 fine for marijuana use. Both parents were shot dead as they returned home from the police station on a motorbike. Mr. Suwit said 10 other people in his neighborhood had also been killed after surrendering to the police.
Many observers suspected collusion between corrupt police officers (which account for many in Thailand) and mafia elements in the killing spree because ‘blacklists’ were leaked and deaths were often reported after suspects departed police stations. Even the government recognised that names on the blacklist may have appeared inappropriately as a result of defamation, misunderstanding or negligence (Thai Post 2003a). According to Amnesty International, “Authorities are not permitting pathologists to perform autopsies and bullets are reportedly being removed from the corpses.” And according to Dr Pornthip Rojanasunan, acting director of the Forensic Science Institute, in more than half of the cases seen by her the drugs appeared to have been planted on the victims after their deaths—jammed in pockets at unnatural angles. This, of course, led to much lower official numbers of judicially sanctioned murders because effectively while corpses might have been riddled in bullet holes, officially the cause of death could not be listed on autopsy records.
Meth use has a high association with depression and suicide as well as serious heart disease, amphetamine psychosis, anxiety and violent behaviors. Meth also has a very high addiction risk.Meth is not directly neurotoxic but its use is associated with an increased risk of Parkinson’s disease due to the fact that uncontrolled dopamine release is neurotoxic. Long-term dopamine upregulation occurring as a result of Methamphetamine abuse can cause neurotoxicity which is believed to be responsible for causing persisting cognitive deficits, such as memory, impaired attention and executive function. Over 20 percent of people addicted to meth develop a long-lasting psychosis resembling schizophrenia after stopping meth which persists for longer than 6 months and is often treatment resistant. Meth use is frequently comorbid with other mental health issues, especially clinical depression, likely due to its dopaminergic qualities. (Dopamine imbalances are often implicated in psychological health problems.)
Contextualizing this in simple terms – meth is perhaps today the most insidious and socially harmful drug known. A product that’s origins in the drug war can largely be attributed to the DEA/U.S. Federal Government.
Back to cannabis and the rise of hydro ….
According to US authorities, the amount of marijuana produced domestically is largely unknown. However, between the years of 2004 and 2008 indoor plant seizures doubled from 203,896 to 450,986. US law enforcement attributed the increased cultivating indoors partially to the heightened levels of outdoor eradication. However, some groups–particularly Asian groups–have established large-scale operations in, or shifted operations to, the United States to avoid seizure of the shipments at the Canadian border and to attain better access to drug markets. In addition to the increased sense of security that indoor sites provide, cultivators benefit from year-round production and controlled environmental conditions such as lighting and nutrients. Controlling these factors allows for increased growth and maturation times, as well as potentially higher-quality cannabis.
Studies of cannabis plants grown in the UK under outdoor conditions by the Laboratory of the Government Chemist have shown a range of dry weights (gross) per plant of 10.9 to 59.1g, 16 to 106g, and 8 to 80 g, with mean weights per plant of 30 to 60g. The variations in growth rates and THC content were ascribed largely to weather conditions. Other sources have stressed the variability of yields and the importance of environmental factors. Antother study evaluated plants grown outdoors and in greenhouses in Denmark finding median gross weights of 308g and 584g respectively, with a mean yield of 8.7% flowering tops after drying. GW Pharmaceuticals, who have a Home Office Licence to grow cannabis in the UK, report gross yields of 157g-188g m-2 in greenhouse conditions, 251g-397g m-2 indoors under mercury lights, and 516g-573g m-2 under HPS lighting (at between 10 and 17x plants per square metre). Actually, the latter number represents the picture well with a gram per watt being about the normal yield (genetics, of course, playing a significant role) achieved by experienced indoor growers – 1.5 grams per watt being possible also.
In an Australian report by Wayne Hall and Wendy Swift (2000) they note on cannabis changing markets: “Over the past two decades a large scale illicit cannabis industry has developed in Australia to meet the demand for cannabis products among a growing number of cannabis users. It has been estimated that daily and weekly cannabis users, who prefer the more potent forms of cannabis, account for 80% of cannabis consumed. Any increase in the number of regular cannabis users that may have occurred in recent decades may have increased the demand for and availability of more potent forms of cannabis. Any such increase in the availability of more potent forms of cannabis would have increased the amount of THC consumed by heavier cannabis users without there having been any increase in the average THC content of cannabis plants.”
Regarding Changing Patterns of Cannabis Use, the report notes; “Survey data suggest that in the 1990s young Australians have probably initiated cannabis use at an earlier age than was the case in the 1980s. The lifetime prevalence of cannabis use in Australia and the United States, particularly among adolescents, has increased, after a decline in the 1980s and early 1990s. Earlier initiation of cannabis use increases the chances that users will become daily or nearly daily cannabis users, and increases the likelihood that they will become dependent on cannabis and experience adverse personal and social consequences as a result of their use. Regular cannabis use makes users tolerant to the effects of THC, encouraging the use of more potent cannabis.”
Similarly the New Zealand Government has intermittently tested the THC content of cannabis samples during the past two decades. Samples of hydroponically grown cannabis tested in a NZ survey typically contained 6-8% THC, with an occasional higher result.
The Independent Drug Monitoring Unit (IDMU) note that the past decade has seen a significant shift in the UK cannabis market away from cannabis resin and towards “Skunk” – a generic term for female ‘sinsemilla’ flowering heads rather than being specific to any one variety. The market share of cannabis resin has fallen from around 60% of the market in 1998 to just over 20% in 2007/08, whereas the share for Skunk has risen from 12% in 1994 to around 70% in 2007/08.
Herbal Cannabis – Skunk (7-20% THC) is the now the UK’s undisputed Market leader. Imported bush, mainly of African or Caribbean origin (1-7% THC) is still found and now accounts for an estimated 6% of the market. The incidence of ‘homegrown’ – leaf or whole plant material (0-4% THC) – has declined significantly. A number of criminal gangs have been prosecuted for large-scale (several hundred kilos a week) importation of skunk-type cannabis, suggesting the UK market for Skunk now exceeds the capacity of UK-based growers to satisfy domestic demand. In 2011, an average of more than 21 cannabis factories were found daily. The number of indoor farms discovered increased to 7,865, more than doubling in four years. UK police estimate that the number of recorded indoor cannabis production offences in the period from April 2011 to March 2012 will rise to 16,464, up from 14,982 in 2010-11. Police intelligence suggests the purchase of seeds and hydroponic equipment was on the increase.
Within Canadian law enforcement, the investigation of indoor cannabis cultivation has been delegated to various “Green Teams.” It is estimated these teams seize approximately eight indoor cannabis grow operations daily in British Columbia, with an average of 150 to 200 plants being seized per operation. In 1998, these teams reported 2,351 cannabis cultivation cases in British Columbia. In 1999, this number increased by 30 percent to 3,279 reported cases.
In Vancouver, where significant hydroponic cultivation first emerged, authorities recently estimated that there are between 2,000 and 3,000 hydroponic greenhouses in their jurisdiction alone. Sophisticated indoor cultivation has gradually expanded to other areas of Canada, including the Prairie Provinces, Ontario, and Quebec, where high-potency marijuana is marketed as “Quebec Gold.”
From a North American perspective in general, high-potency marijuana was perfected in British Columbia, where shops openly sold seeds, equipment and books on how to set up a hydroponic grow-op. In the 1990s ‘BC Bud’ was the strongest cannabis available, and Americans loved it. Worth $1,500 to $2,000 per pound in Vancouver, the drug sold for $3,000 per pound in California and up to $8,000 per pound in New York. This made trafficking from Canada to the US a highly lucrative – albeit risky – business.
The RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) in 2000 had this to say.
“Seizure data for 2000 are comparable to previous years, with seizures of more More and more marihuana growers appear to be opting for indoor operations, which enable them to operate year-round and give them better protection from law enforcement and poachers. Rental properties are often the location of choice. Most of the time, the owners are unaware of the illegal activities taking place in their house. Once they have served their purpose, the facilities are usually abandoned and left in a state of disrepair.
Large multi-thousand plants indoor grow operations are not uncommon. In most cases, these are the purview of organized crime. They are often sophisticated and highly automated operations. Some use water-based hydroponic technology, while others use proven and less complex soil-based organic methods.
Intelligence seems to indicate an increase in the use of hydroponics, however there is sometimes confusion as to what constitutes a true hydroponic operation.”
In an analysis of the Canadian province of Quebec, cannabis production in 2007 showed that close to 30%, or about 15,000 cannabis growers, used hydroponics and that, as a group, they accounted for more than 50% of cannabis production in the province. In addition, the evolution/growth of the hydroponics retail sector and the number of cannabis cultivation offences recorded by police agencies between 1977 and 2005 found a distinct correlation between the increase in the numbers of hydroponic stores and cultivation charges. Between 1993 and 2003, the number of hydroponics shops rose from 15 to 90, at a pace of close to seven new shops annually. Police data prior to 1990 included very few cultivation offences (about 100 recorded offences per year). Subsequent to 1990, recorded offences increased almost without interruption to close to 3000 in less than 15 years—the most rapid growth occurring between 1993 and 1997.
The most plausible hypothesis was that the majority of hydroponic store clients were cannabis growers.
The South Australian experience enforces this further. Australia’s most liberal cannabis laws were introduced there in 1987 which allowed South Australians to cultivate as many as 10 plants per household. Under the laws, cultivation of 10 plants or less incurred a fine of $150 with no criminal conviction. This opened a Pandora’s box and it wasn’t long before organized crime began co-opting others to cultivate 10 plants per household.
As a result the number of SA specialist hydroponic retail stores increased from ten in 1992 to approximately 90 in 2000 – the highest number per head of population in the country. Just one outcome to this was that SA, which boarders onto 3 other states, became the cannabis capital of Australia, exporting large volumes. In a 2002 report on the industry it was estimated that in South Australia, annual turnover generated by hydroponic specialist retailers was $52.4 million annually. After an intelligence probe of shops supplying hydroponic equipment showed over 50% were run by people with criminal convictions or associations with outlaw motorcycle clubs and/or other organized crime in 2010 the SA hydroponics industry became the first in the world to be regulated when laws came into force that would require retailers to be of fit and sound character, and would require them to keep records of sales of HID lights and activated carbon filters (via sighting 100 points of ID) and then provide these records to the authorities by the end of each days trading.
The new laws followed similar legislation introduced in 2008 which outlawed the possession of hydroponic equipment without lawful excuse. Under this legislation, anyone found with hydroponic equipment faced two years’ jail or a $10,000 fine – never mind the cannabis!
Similar to this, Northern California’s “Emerald Triangle” has long been famous for the amount of pot grown in its fertile soil, but the indoor variety has become an economic backbone in more recent times. The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department counted 22 hydroponics stores—one for about every 4,500 residents and twice as many as supermarkets.
Outdoor pot prices have plummeted in recent years. The drop in prices is in part the result of more growers and a more tolerant legal landscape under Californian medical laws, but another major factor is quality. Indoor-grown marijuana is increasingly favored by dispensaries and consumers for its looks, consistence and potency. It costs more to produce than pot grown under the sun, but commands as much as double the price.
As Harborside Health puts it:
- Our pricing on the medicine we receive is based largely on the bag appeal of the medicine grown. This includes the visual appeal of the flowers as well as the quality of the nose/smell.
- For indoor medicine you can expect $2,800 – $3,400 per pound.
- We do buy outdoor medicine, but it must be very high quality outdoor, or one of the exotic strains. We do not sell as much outdoor medicine; therefore we do not buy as much.
- For outdoor medicine you can expect $1,500 – $2,400 per pound.