Forget the cigars, it's Cuban chronic that has authorities in a tizzy in South Florida.
In a matter of just a few years, Cuban refugees have risen up to take the lead in growing marijuana in the Sunshine State, accounting for 85 to 90 percent of the suspects arrested in Florida on grow-house related charges in the past five years, according to a report in the Orlando Sentinel.
Since 2005, the Cuban operations have been running hundreds of grow houses from Miami to Atlanta, with arrests as plentiful as the pot plants.
Why take the risk? For starters, the ultrapotent Cuban chiba is worth as much as $4,500 per pound on the open market. Growing one pound of marijuana per plant every three months, a single house can produce about $1 million a year. And the growers have the crime down to a science, growing less than 100 plants to avoid stiffer sentences. Since mandatory sentences of 5 years in prison or more don't kick in unless 100 or more plants are found in a house, many growers get off with probation.
Officials with the South Florida High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area say South Florida is the center of the trade.
"The last thing we want to do in law enforcement is crucify the Cuban-American community as a whole - they have made South Florida what it is today," Capt. Joe Mendez, of the Drug Trafficking Area task force, told the Sentinel. "That's why we are saying these are Cuban refugees, recent arrivals...They arrive here on a raft, and drug dealers give them a place to live and promise them they'll own the (grow) house in a year or two."
Though Florida doesn't keep records that specify the nationalities of the grow house operators, individual Sheriff's Office statistics show that the number of Cuban growers seems out of proportion.
In the past year Cuban-born suspects ran about 20 of 41 grow houses in Brevard County, nine of 12 grow houses in Orange County, 10 of 13 in Osceola County, nine of 11 in Lake County, none of seven in Seminole County, and 12 of 42 in Volusia County. In Polk County, 142 of 172 suspects, some 84 percent, busted since 2005, were of Cuban origin.
In Miami-Dade, 348 grow-house-related arrests were made last year of Cubans.
"Twenty thousand Cubans arrive in South Florida every year, so numerically 300 arrests would be a relatively small number," said Miami Cuban-American National Council President Guarione M. Diaz. "But I think even one is too many."
Until the early 1980s, Florida's pot sources were generally Jamaica, Mexico and South America. Authorities say the pot production began to change around 2000, when grow houses began popping up more and more. Miami became the epicenter of the new homemade industry and the source for the highest quality and most expensive pot in Florida. Authorities say the pot is five to 10 times stronger than it was 20 years ago.
"In 2000 we had 14 indoor grows, and by last year there were 348," South Florida HIDTA Director Tim Wagner told the Sentinel, talking about Miami-Dade. "About five years ago, we started to realize there was indeed a problem and we needed to do something about it."
And the problem isn't just stoners getting high. Police say the weed growers are just as violent as any other hardcore drug dealer.
"The big perception is that marijuana is a mellow drug and everybody's happy," said Mark R. Trouville, special agent in charge of DEA's Miami office. "But these people will kill each other as quickly as heroin and cocaine dealers."