Supporters of legalizing marijuana and officers charged with seizing it have different opinions about the drug, but they agree on one point: It’s a valuable crop.
Just how valuable, however, is another point of contention.
With the arrival of fall, growers of the illicit crop are racing to harvest the plants while law enforcement officials rush to find and wipe out growing sites. In two recent seizures in Tulare and Fresno counties, officials destroyed thousands of plants, which they said were worth $7.2 million.
That estimate is based on a formula used by the state Department of Justice: on average, each plant would yield a pound of usable marijuana over its remaining lifetime, and a pound of marijuana is worth about $4,000 when sold in small quantities on the street.
While marijuana advocates generally agree with authorities on the value of a pound of marijuana, they disagree that each plant yields a pound of pot. They say authorities should measure the actual marijuana seized, rather than make assumptions about a plant’s lifetime potential.
The argument is more than a technical discussion. Larger quantities generally result in harsher penalties in court.
Keith Stroup, legal counsel for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, better known as NORML, calls the values police put on seizures “self-serving.”
“I don’t think most plants [would yield a pound] at any one time — unless it’s a massive plant,” he said. “What would make more sense would be to weigh the buds,” which are the part of the marijuana plant where the intoxicant, a chemical called THC, is located.
Special Agent Casey McEnry of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency in San Francisco disagrees.
“We’re not weighing the plants,” she said. “When I give an estimate, it’s based on how many pounds [a plant] is capable of producing.”
That’s also the approach taken by the state Department of Justice’s Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement. Michelle Gregory, a special agent in Sacramento, said while some plants may not produce a pound, others will produce more.
“We’re not going to weigh it over and over,” she added, disputing arguments by marijuana advocates that prosecutions should be based on the weight of the drug when it’s dry because that is its usable form.
The two local seizures illustrate how state bureau’s formula is used.
Tulare County Sheriff’s deputies took part in an operation last month that captured 200 plants and valued the seizure at $800,000.
Chris Douglass, a spokeswoman for the Tulare County Sheriff, said the $4,000-per-plant formula was more than fair in this case. Some plants had very large roots and some were more than 10 feet tall and could produce multiple pounds per plant, she said.
In another raid last month, Fresno County Sheriff’s officials reported eradicating 1,400 plants, worth $5.6 million at $4,000 each, and 200 pounds of processed marijuana, worth $800,000 at $4,000 each, for a total value of $6.4 million.
While marijuana advocates argue that the weight assumption built into the state formula is too aggressive, some police agencies think the market value assumption can be too conservative.
Fresno Police spokesman Jeff Cardinale said his department, for example, adjusts the value depending on local market conditions — an equation that “fluctuates depending upon supply and demand.”
In Fresno, the street price for an ounce of quality marijuana is $300 and up, according to operators of several medical marijuana clinics. This results in a value of $4,800 per plant, assuming each produces a pound.
Users of marijuana interviewed for this story said the price for an ounce was about the same when the drug is bought from street dealers. Stroup, of NORML, said nationally the price of an ounce can vary from $300 to more than $600.
Gregory, of the state Department of Justice, stood by the agency’s pricing system. She said officers get their prices based on information from traffickers.
“That’s the price [drug dealers are] giving us,” she said, “and they know better than we do.”
By Jim Guy
October 12, 2009