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Marijuana busts on the rise in counties outside Houston
    #761583 - 12/13/14 10:47 PM (3 years, 4 months ago)

Authorities have seized more than 133,000 pounds of marijuana here

In a tiny mobile-home neighborhood hidden among Montgomery County's thick timber, sheriff's deputies recently arrested a man and seized more than 100 pounds of marijuana. Earlier this fall, they raided a five-bedroom home in a quiet neighborhood east of Conroe, confiscating more than 100 pounds of the same drug. Those raids followed the uncovering of two marijuana fields on about five acres behind an old prison in Fort Bend County last summer.

Large-scale marijuana busts like these are on the rise in the Houston area, particularly in fast-growing suburbs such as Montgomery and Fort Bend.

Officers with the Texas Department of Public Safety seized more than 133,400 pounds of marijuana in the Houston area from 2010 to 2014 - a 57 percent increase over the previous five-year period, according to data obtained from the agency.

Of the more than 93,800 pounds of marijuana seized by DPS officers statewide this year, about 16,400 pounds - or nearly one-fifth - came from Houston-area suburbs.

Federal authorities say Mexican gangs are turning to counties like Montgomery and Polk as sites to grow their product amid stepped-up enforcement efforts along the Texas-Mexico border.

The rural undeveloped patches of land and elaborate roadways outside Houston also make a perfect cover for smugglers and growers, according to a recent Department of Justice report.

Lt. Brady Fitzgerald of the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office said the region's swelling population also is a factor.

"It means that there's a growing demand," Fitzgerald said. "It's a very common drug, and as more people move into the region, more people will pay for it."

Montgomery and Fort Bend are two of Texas' fastest-growing counties, and authorities there report that they are uncovering more outdoor marijuana operations.

Clandestine outdoor marijuana fields have also been uncovered in Harris, Polk, Washington, San Jacinto, Wharton and Liberty and Waller counties.

Local and federal law-enforcement agencies are investing in programs to target the gangs that produce the drug and also the number of domestic marijuana operations, according to DEA spokesman Wendell Campbell.

The state DPS's figures don't include seizures by local law enforcement agencies. But federal, state and local officers have eliminated more than 255,000 plants this year, which is 100,000 more than last year. The DEA attributes that spike to increased border enforcement, which has severed foreign passages.

Indoor operations are on the rise, too, local and DEA officials say.

Typically, many of the indoor operations have been found in quiet suburban neighborhoods such as The Woodlands, Spring, Cypress, Conroe, Katy, Sugar Land and Missouri City.

Law enforcement officials have also noticed an uptick in marijuana use. Julie Martineau, president of the United Way of Montgomery County, said the trend is alarming. She said the No. 1 complaint that her nonprofit hears from employers is that "it's difficult finding applicants who can pass a drug tests."

Schools also are facing challenges amid growing support nationwide for legalizing marijuana. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 52 percent of respondents favored legalizing marijuana, up from 12 percent in 1969.

"We've learned that programs like 'Just Say No' have a limited effectiveness. Drug-proofing our students comes with strong relationships and good decision-making," said Sherry Sunderman, a Conroe ISD guidance and counseling coordinator.

Law enforcement officials hope that stepped-up enforcement and more resources will help stem drug production locally.

The Texas-Mexico border is one of the most active drug smuggling areas in the U.S., and Houston and its suburbs fall within the routes of drug traffickers. In 2009, President Barack Obama's administration launched the National Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy to increase security along the border. The strategy outlines actions that will reduce the flow of illicit drugs, cash and weapons across the border. It was in 2009 that Texas began to see more marijuana seized and produced.

Local law enforcement agencies have added millions to their budgets to combat the trends. In Montgomery County, commissioners created at least two new detective positions for a special unit that investigates narcotics.

And Houston' DEA Division is striving to halt the spread of cannabis cultivation in the communities around Houston.

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