MEXICO — Law enforcement officials in Western Maine say there could be a bumper crop of marijuana this year, based on outside growing conditions and the number of plants seized so far.
Police are finding that plants cultivated outdoors are doing much better than in the past two years put together, Oxford County Marijuana Eradication Coordinator Chancey Libby said.
“Two years ago, we were finding pathetic-looking plants that were over-watered and drowned by all the rain," Cpl. Libby said.
The lack of rain this summer, however, means people who cultivate marijuana outdoors have to work that much harder to grow it, which increases the risk of getting caught, Libby said.
“We've had such a nice, dry summer that these people will have to tote more water in,” he said.
The county's biggest haul so far came on Aug. 3 when 298 plants were seized in Andover.
“Two Lewiston people were caught red-handed in the plants,” Libby said. Charges are pending the completion of the report.
As of Wednesday, state and local law enforcement officers in Oxford County had seized 1,318 marijuana plants, 4 pounds of processed marijuana and three guns; they had made 11 arrests on charges of marijuana cultivation, he said.
The latest came on Aug. 13 when 32 plants were yanked in Greenwood. That followed the Aug. 10 eradication of 135 plants on Farrington Mountain in Mexico.
“They were in the vegetative state, based on their growing height and leaves, but they hadn't begun to bud yet, so they don't have a whole lot of value,” said Gerry Baril, Maine Drug Enforcement Agency supervisor.
In Franklin County, state and local law enforcement officers seized 161 plants in two plots on March 12 that were being cultivated indoors and outside, Libby said.
“They were probably just starter plants and they probably put a tarp on the ones outdoors to keep them from freezing,” he said.
As of Wednesday, 1,134 pot plants have been eradicated in Franklin County, and nearly 3 pounds of processed pot seized, along with one gun; seven arrests had been made. Their biggest haul of the year, so far, came on July 15 in Wilton when 429 plants were seized.
The number of plants seized in Androscoggin County as of Wednesday were much lower at 810, but the amount of processed pot was much higher: 37 pounds. Also seized were 10 guns and $12,782; and 14 arrests were made, Libby said. The biggest seizure was 198 plants on April 15 in Poland.
Androscoggin County's earliest indoor/outdoor grow was found on May 28 when 29 plants were seized, whereas the earliest such grow found in Oxford County came on May 26 in Norway when 88 plants were yanked.
To put those numbers into perspective, as of July 31, state and local law enforcement officers across the state have eradicated 5,552 plants, of which 4,853 came from indoor grows and 699 were found outside. There were 76 arrests associated with the seizures.
Libby said last year's totals were 11,398 plants eradicated with 6,417 yanked from outdoor plots and 4,981 seized from indoor growing operations, with 160 arrests.
“I'm suspecting those numbers are low because they didn't have all the numbers in yet,” he said.
“But if we continue on the current eradication route with the numbers we have now, our end-of-year numbers will be a lot higher than last year. I'm expecting a good yield this year.”
Baril said the going price for pot this year is $3,000 a pound, and each plant — depending on how it's nurtured — can possibly yield a quarter-pound of pot.
“That's why it's so lucrative and why so many people get involved,” he said.
Most illegally grown outdoor pot is on land owned by someone other than the grower, which reduces the risk, he said.
"So, it's a balance of risk versus the consequences, and the consequences are such that average sentences in Oxford County aren't very severe, so their thinking is that if the consequences don't outweigh the risk, why not do it?”
The general rule of thumb in outdoor cultivation, however, is that for every 100 plants put outside, a third will be lost to the weather, a third to animals, and the other third to people stealing the plants or law enforcement finding and eradicating them, Baril said.
That's why many growers are moving operations indoors and going hydroponic, a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions in water, without soil.
To successfully cultivate marijuana, growers only want female plants.
“You don't want male plants around it, because it will fertilize the female and you won't get your buds' worth of anything,” Libby said.
Maine cannabis growers who cultivate outdoors will harvest by late September or early October, because the female plants can sense waning daylight hours, he said. Indoor growers simply reduce the amount of light to induce budding.
With less available light, Baril said the plant thinks it's getting ready to die, so it goes into reproductive mode.
“Since the female plant has not reproduced with a male plant, it grows buds to catch pollen from male plants and the bud contains the highest concentration of THC,” he said.
The main active chemical compound in marijuana is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC for short, which is the much sought-after “fruit” of the bud.
Due to the unusually warm winter, some marijuana growers started plants outside as early as March, Baril said.