U.S.-grown pot finding its way to the suburbs
In January, two men from the West Coast, heading east on Interstate 88 in a Chevrolet Impala with Oregon plates, blew past Route 31 in North Aurora without paying the 60-cent toll.
A Kane County sheriff's deputy pulled them over and found 60 pounds of high-grade marijuana in the truck -- a haul with an estimated street value of $1 million.
On March 12, a Ford Econoline van with Arizona plates was motoring west on Interstate 90 near Hampshire -- at a leisurely 35 mph.
As a squad car pulled alongside the van, the driver of the van leaned back in his seat, trying to hide his face from the officer.
Police stopped the van and found 230 pounds of top-shelf marijuana, with an estimated value of $4 million. A passenger in the van provided a Fresno, Calif., address.
Just two days later, Cook County sheriff's deputies in Elk Grove Township pulled over two Florida men in an 18-wheeler with Florida plates.
Under a load of carrots, police found 80 plastic-wrapped bundles containing more than half a ton of marijuana. The estimated value: $5,325,000.
Suburban authorities say these three hauls, and other large pot busts this year, are part of an increasing trend of high-quality, domestically grown marijuana -- much of it originating on the West Coast -- that is finding its way to the Chicago area.
"There is definitely an increasing market as well as the ability to increase profits," said Kane County Sheriff's Lt. Patrick Gengler. "With the higher quality, the dealers and distributors are able to charge a little bit more money."
In the past five years, drug organizations have started to grow marijuana in the United States, taking advantage of favorable growing conditions on the West Coast.
Authorities say that has enabled drug gangs to avoid the costs associated with shipping marijuana across the Mexican border -- especially in recent years, as federal authorities have tightened border controls.
At the same time, many states in the west now allow some form of medical marijuana. When otherwise legal growing operations have filled their orders for medicinal use, some of them package their excess product for sale in eastern states where marijuana is illegal, authorities say.
"The seizures that we've been involved in ... we have made some significant ties to medical marijuana being produced in these western states," said Master Sgt. Bill Backus, director of the North Central Narcotics Task Force.
Police are also seeing an increase in marijuana produced right in their backyard, with local dealers growing hundreds of plants in rural fields, suburban homes and forest preserves.
"We had a point where we had a tremendous amount of outdoor grows," said McHenry County sheriff's Sgt. John Koziol, who oversees the narcotics division. "We started realizing they were identical to ones they were finding in Washington and California."
On Friday, the McHenry County sheriff's office announced the arrest of three people accused of running a hydroponic marijuana operation out of house near Marengo.
The increase in product flowing into the area has placed more pressure on suburban law enforcement agencies, which then have less resources to fight harder drugs like heroin. ("That's still our number one priority," Koziol said.)
But authorities say they are getting better at stopping the flow of marijuana and have aggressively moved to shut down grow houses and outdoor pot farms. Local departments have also learned to work together more closely and collaborate with agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration and the North Central Narcotics Task Force, of the Illinois State Police.
"Our main mission is to choke off that pipeline of large amounts of dope coming in the area," said Will Taylor, special agent with the DEA. "Interdiction has improved dramatically."
The large seizures, often netting hundreds of thousands of dollars in marijuana and cash, prevent a large amount of product from hitting the streets, cutting into the profits of local and out-of-state dealers.
"We're happy whenever we are able to get a large amount of drugs off the street," said Liane Jackson, spokeswoman for the Cook County sheriff's office.
But authorities say growing demand, high profits and the push for medical marijuana in Illinois means suburban police will be fighting the battle against illegal pot for a long time.
"Medical marijuana in Illinois is a bad idea. We're basing that on what we've learned from other states," Backus said. "The abuses that we've seen in western states with dispensaries ... all those abuses give us grave concern for that to happen in Illinois as well."