Operation Green Merchant

The DEA believed that High Times magazine, pot seed merchants, indoor pot growers, pot journalists and hydroponics equipment manufacturers were a criminal conspiracy worthy of a nationwide takedown.
Operation Green Merchant was the DEA’s comprehensive attempt to destroy pot magazines and hydroponics and indoor marijuana growing industries. To understanding the US government’s bizarre attack on this legitimate, multi-faceted industry, realize that DEA ideology brands the hydroponics industry as the indoor marijuana industry, and vice versa.

There are no facts to back up the DEA’s assertion that the industries are one in the same. In fact, only a very small portion of hydroponic farmers are marijuana growers. Yet Green Merchant took action against hydroponics storeowners, workers and customers by arresting them for marijuana crimes ? even when there was no evidence they were guilty of any crimes.

One of the best histories of Green Merchant is an article by Jeff Edwards in the Winter 2004 issue of Hydroponic Retailing In the USA. The author is a hydroponic store founder-owner, and also president of the Hydroponic Merchants Association (HMA), an influential trade group.

According to Edwards, in the late 1980’s the DEA believed that High Times magazine, pot seed merchants, indoor pot growers, pot journalists and hydroponics equipment manufacturers were a criminal conspiracy worthy of a nationwide takedown.

Using gardening equipment ads in High Times as their roadmap, undercover DEA agents visited hydroponics stores and contacted hydroponics wholesalers, asking for advice and materials for marijuana cultivation.

The DEA subpoenaed United Parcel Service (UPS) delivery records associated with hydroponics stores, getting information on tens of thousands of people suspected of procuring hydro equipment for marijuana growing. Hydroponics retailers were already nervous, noting that Congress started passing laws in 1985 that criminalized otherwise legal products if they were “intended for illegal use.”

Most storeowners had already adopted a hard-line policy: they instructed their employees to remove anyone from the store who asked about marijuana. If the person refused to leave, employees were to call the police and have the person arrested for trespassing.

These precautions didn’t matter to President George H.W. Bush, who announced a major escalation of the drug war in a Sept. 5, 1989 speech televised from the Oval Office. Under Bush’s prodding, DEA agents increasingly visited hydroponics stores, ran surveillance, and gathered information through strongarm tactics and subterfuge. They lied to store employees, posing as bikers, hippies, Vietnam veterans, and medically needy people.

One hydroponics store staffer who was a victim of Green Merchant said DEA agents were “shameless in their deceptions, wearing clandestine recording devices while trying to trick us into having incriminating discussions about marijuana. They offered us women, guns, and money if we’d show them how to grow pot and sell them gear.”

Black Thursday

Then, on a day known in the hydroponics industry as Black Thursday, October 26, 1989, the DEA in conjunction with dozens of other law enforcement agencies raided hydroponics stores in 46 states, arresting 119 people, seizing several indoor gardening shops and thousands of cannabis plants.

Store owners and employees watched in horror as gun-toting police ransacked their shops. In most cases, no charges were ever filed, but civil asset forfeitures stole millions of dollars worth of inventory from stores and individuals. One cultivation-centered pot magazine, Sensimilla Tips, went out of business, and High Times spent years recovering from the loss of its most lucrative advertisers. Sensimilla Tips publisher Tom Alexander established the magazine The Growing Edge in the aftermath of Operation Green Merchant, where nary a mention of marijuana can be found.

Green Merchant kept rolling long after Black Thursday, roping in hundreds of plants and growers, also corralling Nevil Schoenmakers, the world’s first international marijuana seed retailer, whose Holland-based “Seed Bank” was an early precursor to Marc Emery Seed Sales and dozens of seed retail imitators.

In 1991, DEA agents began serving subpoenas on hydro storeowners, seeking customer addresses and other private information. Agents raided, questioned, and intimidated hundreds of people and organizations, including scientists and NASA’s horticultural research facilities. By the end of 1991, Green Merchant had arrested 1,262 people, dismantled 977 indoor grows, and seized $17.5 million in assets. Dozens of people served 4 to 15 year prison terms, many with mandatory minimums that did not allow for sentence reduction.

The Green Merchant scheme backfired on the DEA. The general public and Libertarian politicians heard that innocent hydroponics storeowners had been convicted of marijuana charges solely based on questionable testimony from tainted informants. People found out the DEA entrapped suspects, ruined lives and businesses, and sent harmless people to prison. The DEA came off not as heroic antidrug crusaders, but as Nazis.

Super Growth

In 2005, nearly two decades after the horrors of Black Thursday, the hydroponics industry is vibrant and confident, but also wary of more DEA-inflicted trauma. One of the main safety tactics employed by the hydroponics industry is for hydro store owners to ruthlessly avoid any connection with marijuana growers or products designed for marijuana. The basis for such extreme avoidance is a federal law, specifically “21 U.S.C. 863,” which defines drug paraphernalia as “any equipment, product, or material of any kind which is primarily intended or designed for use in manufacturing, compounding, converting, concealing, producing, processing, preparing, injecting, ingesting, inhaling, or otherwise introducing into the human body a controlled substance?”

Because the definition of paraphernalia criminalizes innocent items, the law says that “in determining whether an item constitutes drug paraphernalia, in addition to all other logically relevant factors, the following may be considered:

(1) instructions, oral or written, provided with the item concerning its use;

(2) descriptive materials accompanying the item which explain or depict its use;

(3) national and local advertising concerning its use;

(4) the manner in which the item is displayed for sale;

(5) the existence and scope of legitimate uses of the item in the community; and

(6) expert testimony concerning its use.

The government’s broad interpretation of this statute formed the basis for the Justice Department’s “Operation Pipe Dreams” in 2003, which snared Tommy Chong and many others. The government views inert, otherwise legal materials and objects ? such as glass ? as illegal if they are “intended” for illegal use.

According to hydroponics industry leaders, “some wacko at the DEA” could interpret this law to mean that hydroponics gear advertised in pot magazines is “illegal drug paraphernalia.”

Jeff Edwards reflected this concern in his Green Merchant article with this dire warning: “Don’t advertise in publications that overtly or covertly appeal to marijuana growers. Avoid at all costs products that are advertised specifically for use in growing marijuana.”

Writing in a gardening magazine, another prominent member of the hydroponics industry warned his colleagues: “[You] can see why I get upset when hydroponic manufacturers or retail stores market their products in a ‘wink and a nod’ manner. And the fact is, you still run a big risk if you market in any way to pot growers. Now, there are those in our industry who don’t believe that. They persist in targeting the underground economy, because they think that’s the path to success. Others, including myself, think that our industry would be wiser and probably richer in the long run by tapping the $70 billion mainstream gardening market. Again I ask, which side are you on?”

On Internet cultivation forums, in cultivation books, and in the marijuana industry, pot growers network and discuss hydroponics, fertilizers, lighting, C02 units, and other indoor gardening supplies. Of these, cannabis fertilizer is the most plant-specific of all the types of merchandise a hydroponics store sells.

There are about eight major manufacturers and dozens of smaller companies making fertilizer products routinely used by marijuana growers. Among the major players are General Hydroponics, Technaflora, Canna, and Advanced Nutrients.

Most hydroponics manufacturers never mention marijuana in their North American marketing materials; they certainly don’t advertise in marijuana magazines. At the same time, some of these same companies or their subsidiaries advertise in European marijuana magazines and at marijuana conventions.

The only major companies in the North American market that openly admit their products are used to grow marijuana are Canna and Advanced Nutrients.

When I asked legit hydroponics insiders to comment on the assertion that fertilizers and other indoor grow products could be considered illegal paraphernalia, most of them adamantly refused to talk on the record.

I contacted Advanced Nutrients at its company headquarters in British Columbia, and spoke to company president Robert Higgins. Initially, Higgins also refused to be interviewed. Later, he gave a brief statement about marijuana-specific advertising, hydroponics stores, and the industry in general.

“Advanced Nutrients are legal products,” Higgins said. “Our products work well on all plants because we do solid research and constant upgrading. Medical marijuana growing is legal in Canada for Health Canada licensed patients; we created specialty products for them that work better on medical marijuana than any other products do. I believe everyone in the industry agrees with Advanced Nutrients that marijuana is a plant medicine, and that excellent medical marijuana can be grown hydroponically.”

Higgins said he “totally supports” hydroponics retailers and is “just as concerned about their safety as they are.

“I understand why people in the US are afraid of their government, but carrying Advanced Nutrients products won’t get them raided,” he said. “Plenty of retailers in the US selling our products are having absolutely zero problems. Our industry realizes we need to work together to defend our business rights and the legitimacy of our products and retailers.”

Higgins refused comment on Edwards’ published advice that hydroponics storeowners should not carry products advertised in marijuana magazines, which until recently were a main venue for Advanced Nutrients’ advertising.

A representative of High Times anonymously responded to Edwards, saying, “Green Merchant was the government trying to destroy free speech by going after our advertisers. We’re proud to teach people how to grow, use, and lobby for marijuana.

Hydro store owners make a stand for freedom by refusing to be intimidated by the drug war. There’s nothing to be ashamed of for growing pot, providing help to growers, selling hydroponics equipment, or being in a weed magazine.”

Better Safe than Sorry?

Barry is a hydroponics store owner in California. His store sells fans, fertilizers, grow lights, gardening books and other equipment. He earns enough to have a “middle class existence”, and employs four other people.

He’s been in business seven years; every year, sales have increased. His marijuana policy: neither the substance nor the topic is found on premises. If a customer so much as hints at being a pot grower, Barry bans them.

Barry drug tests his employees. If they test positive, or otherwise violate his marijuana policies, he fires them.

“Green Merchant is how extreme the government can get ? they’ll bust you even if you have zero contact with marijuana,” he complains. “As far as my store is concerned, to my knowledge nobody who buys our products uses them for marijuana. Not even legal medical marijuana. We don’t have marijuana in our lives, period. However, given that they can bust you even if you aren’t doing anything associated with marijuana, I often wonder what’s the use of taking precautions.”

Barry’s store carries several types of fertilizers, among them Advanced Nutrients.

“I hesitated to carry Advanced,” he confesses, “because their marketing was tied to medical marijuana. A lot of customers demanded it. It sells well. Sure, sales reps for other nute companies warn Advanced is gonna get me popped. I was concerned enough to have my lawyer contact the DEA and my Congressman. The DEA tells him it’s got no intent of busting my store unless I am actively and knowingly assisting marijuana growers, which I am not. The Congressman says there’s no political will or funding to do another Green Merchant, and probably never will be.”

While we’re speaking, a 60-something woman comes in asking what she needs to buy so she can have a small, indoor garden for orchids and other legal exotic plants.

Barry shows her a self-contained ebb and flow rack system that contains pump, reservoir, tubing, volcanic rock, fittings, an Advanced Nutrients starter kit, a frame and an adjustable height 250 watt HPS light. It was a small purchase, just under $790, and seemed 100 percent legitimate.

When I asked Barry if the lady was a “typical customer,” he just smiled.

Regulation Blues

There are clouds on the horizon. Police and politicians in Southern Australia recently proposed a law that would investigate and register hydroponics store owners and operators, similar to the way pawn shops and alcohol stores are licensed in the United States. The proposed law requires hydroponics customers to provide identification, address information and “end user certificates” to stores, and requires stores to divulge customer information to police.

In March, Paul Nadeau, head of the RCMP’s marijuana enforcement team in British Columbia, said the Mounties are drafting a new grow shop bylaw that authorities could use to regulate hydroponics stores, much like pawn shops. Customers would have to provide picture identification; stores would be required to give police access to customer purchases.

“There’s absolutely no doubt in our minds that these stores cater to people who grow marijuana,” Nadeau said. “The people who are growing marijuana, they’re using these stores. It’s not gardeners.” In the US, lawmakers threatened to regulate the commercial fertilizer industry because some components can be precursors for methamphetamine or bombs. The fertilizer industry responded by offering to help police stop such materials from being used illegally in California.

Barry says his wife and family ask him to “get out of the business,” but he sees it as “my duty as a citizen to stand up to the government for my right to help people grow plants.”

“What’s this leading to?” he wonders. “They’re telling us what plants to grow, what fertilizers we can use and sell. Based on probable harm or intent? I look at their scare tactics as a business crime and a human rights crime. I won’t bow to it.” Other hydroponics enthusiasts have admittedly bowed to it. Like a 50-year-old veteran hydroponicist I spoke to, one of many whose life was virtually destroyed during the Green Merchant pogrom. He’s thankful to have a safer job now, but says he’s lost the inner fire that once made him an advocate for hydroponics and marijuana legalization.

“Now, I am like most Americans: just trying to get along until I die,” he ruefully admits. “They have beaten me down and I have submitted. Until you realize they will break the law to take somebody down, you just don’t understand. They are criminals with badges and will do whatever they want to do.”

Illustration from `Closet Cultivator` by Ed RosenthalIllustration from `Closet Cultivator` by Ed RosenthalTHE IDEAL GARDEN

This well equipped garden contains: an ebb-and-flow system including nursery pots, tray, reservoir pump and auto drain; a regulator system, tank, meter, and tubing; an air cooled reflector that holds a 1000 watt HPS lamp hanging from a light mover; two ventilation fans on opposite sides of the garden; a humidistat/thermostat regulating a squirrel fan, vents and an air conditioner to the cool room.

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  238. Trevor on

    “I understand why people in the US are afraid of their government, but carrying Advanced Nutrients products won’t get them raided,” he said. “Plenty of retailers in the US selling our products are having absolutely zero problems. Our industry realizes we need to work together to defend our business rights and the legitimacy of our products and retailers.”

    Agree with this statement totally.

    Also good to hear that Advanced Nutrients isn’t going to get anyone raided. Been thinking about starting up my own hydro store and was a little worried.