The Complicated Connections Between Legal Hydroponics and the Marijuana Black Market in the United States

Article by Francisco Alvarado, Vice

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The case against Hernandez-Gonzalez put a spotlight on a cottage industry that straddles the letter of the law by selling tools needed to cultivate high-grade weed indoors. In states that have legalized pot for medical and recreational use, hydroponic supply companies are poised for record growth, leading one publicly-traded gardening conglomerate and mainstream brand, Scotts Miracle-Gro, to get in on the action. But in states like Florida where pot farming remains a felonious offense, stores selling hydroponic equipment are battlefronts in the ongoing war against weed.

According to market research firm IBISWorld, the hydroponic gardening retail industry has experienced annual growth of 8.2 percent since 2011, generates $654 million in annual revenue, and employs 11,721 people across the country. “Industry revenue is forecast to continue rising over the five years to 2021, as a result of rising popularity of quality organic produce along with increases in the market for both medical and recreational marijuana,” their analysis states.

Michelle Goldman, vice-president of BetterGrow Hydro, a California gardening store chain founded in the 1990s, told VICE that perhaps 25 percent of her customer base grows fruit and vegetables. The majority, though, grow weed under the auspices of the state’s robust medical marijuana program, she said. (Voters will get to decide if weed should be legal for recreational use in California this November.)

But in Florida, where the DEA eradicated 242 indoor marijuana grow sites in 2015—second only to California—indoor gardening retailers are catering to a mostly black market clientele with a wink and a nod, according to experts, cops, and local businesspeople. The Sunshine State currently allows only a non-psychoactive form of cannabis for medical use, and while a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize stronger strains of marijuana for very sick people is on the November ballot, pot cultivation over 25 pounds is still a felony punishable by a minimum of three years in prison.

“It’s like going into a head shop,” Arturo, a manager at Advanced Hydroponics in Miami who asked his last name not be published, said of his industry. “You use a “don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. If someone references illegal substances, I show them the door. But the truth is that a majority of the growth in our business is due to people getting into growing marijuana.”

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