MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
More Americans moved to Florida last year than any other state. One Florida community recently learned that part of its growth has been fueled by drug dealers. In the space of just a few months, authorities in Port St. Lucie found more than 60 marijuana grow houses in their city.
As NPR's Greg Allen reports, authorities say a drug ring has been recruiting pot growers by offering them a little piece of the American dream.
GREG ALLEN: For Port St. Lucie, it all started in May, when police received a call that a city employee attempting to cut off a home's water service was being chased by a man with a machete. When police responded, they found a house filled with marijuana plants. In that first night, they found 10 other marijuana grow houses. One bust continued to lead to another until now, nearly four months later, 61 grow houses have been shut down.
TED SCHROEDER: This is how we find it. When we entered in like this -
ALLEN: Ted Schroeder walks through one of the grow houses. Despite the dirt and litter, it's clear that this is a very nice home, a 3-bedroom, 2-bath house no more than three years old. In the kitchen, there are stainless steel appliances and granite countertops. But step through a doorway, and the home becomes a greenhouse.
SCHROEDER: This would've been the garage, and what they do is they completely seal them off.
ALLEN: What had been the garage has now been turned into a grow room. The floor is filled with now empty planters. Schroeder peels back some of the reflective foil that covers the walls.
SCHROEDER: They have silver wall board on the outside, right up against the garage door, and they've got foil and then outer foil, all the way around.
ALLEN: It's very well insulated, I guess.
SCHROEDER: It's very well insulated, so it keeps the noise, the heat, the smell really self-contained within the room here.
ALLEN: It's not happening just in Port St. Lucie. Across the country, law enforcement agencies are seizing more marijuana grown indoors than ever before. The Drug Enforcement Administration reports seizures up by 30 percent over the last year. Authorities cite as reasons for the proliferation of grow houses the higher potency of the marijuana raised and higher street prices dealers get for the product. With hydroponics, grow lights and automatic watering systems, some houses can produce three or four harvests a year, generating more than a million dollars in income.
But Mark Trouville with the DEA's Miami office says the Port St. Lucie grow houses added something new to the equation. Organizers in New Jersey used the lure of Florida real estate, he says, to find people who would tend the crops and live in the grow houses.
MARK TROUVILLE: These folks were offered an opportunity to come down, live in a home that was purchased. They lived free. They would be given a piece of every plant, upwards of $1,000 per plant, and at the end of a two year period, if they decided they wanted to stop at that point, the house would normally be sold and the profits split.
ALLEN: According to the Census Bureau, last year Port St. Lucie was America's fastest growing large city. City Police Chief John Skinner says that helps explain why for a time marijuana was one of Port St. Lucie's biggest growth industries.
JOHN SKINNER: In many instances, these individuals who moved here were moving so kind on an anonymity basis and could easily blend in to the community, and they did so, with their wooden picket fences, and in many instances, neighbors don't know other neighbors, and I think that kind of gave them the opportunity to blend in with the community.
ALLEN: Because of the scale and organized nature of the Port St. Lucie grow houses, federal authorities are involved. The Justice Department has indicted 35 people, making arrests in Florida, New York and New Jersey. Skinner says all the arrests raise concerns in Port St. Lucie but that he thinks residents now consider it just part of living in a popular and fast growing community. He talks about a T-shirt he's seen in town - Come Grow With Us - Pot St. Lucie, Florida.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.