Will McCollum's Grow House Law Increase Crime? The Case of Stephen Febonio

Lately, we've been looking at the case of Stephen Febonio: The man's body was recovered buried in a freezer at an abandoned Delray Beach marijuana grow house last March. Febonio was owed about $10,000 for some drywall he'd installed at another grow house in Parkland -- a half-million-dollar family home in the posh Heron Bay gated community. When his friend Jose Alfaro refused to pay up, Febonio evidently threatened to go to the DEA about what was really going on in that sweet Mediterranean-style bungalow.

Allegedly, Alfaro killed Febonio with a shot to the back of the head and stuffed his body into a freezer. That freezer sat in a garage in Parkland (Alfaro allegedly told friends it was filled with "deer meat") until Alfaro and a friend moved it to another grow house in Delray, where police dug it up two years later on a tip from one of Alfaro's former associates.

Police say Alfaro told another friend months later that he couldn't get Febonio's body out of the freezer because it had frozen and thawed so many times the corpse was encased in a block of ice.

A year after Febonio disappeared but before his body was discovered, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum announced new legislation targeting grow house operators. Will tougher legislation help curb gruesome murders like Febonio's?

According to the Associated Press, Florida is second only to California in the number of grow houses operating here. Forty-one out of 67 counties have grow houses within their boundaries. The AP says a pound of grass has the equivalent street value of a pound of cocaine now, mostly due to the higher potency of weed grown indoors under optimum conditions. So the stakes, in Febonio's case, were very high.

In 2008, Bill McCollum announced his new Grow House Eradication Act. The act made it a second-degree felony to grow more than 25 plants (previously the number was 300) -- carrying a maximum 15-year jail sentence. The law made it a third-degree felony to own a house for the purpose of cultivating, packaging, and distributing marijuana. If children were present in the home, it became a first-degree felony to grow 25 or more plants.

A spokesman for NORML, Allen St. Pierre, told us that NORML has been tracking McCollum's anti-cannabis policies for some time. "[McCollum] has been one of the longest-serving actively anti-cannabis politicians in the country, at all levels of government he has worked," St. Pierre says.

NORML and anti-drug war advocates take the position that draconion anti-cannabis laws lead to more crime rather than less. With longer jail sentences for growers, they have even more incentive to bury potential snitches six feet under. With increased risk, prices rise, making operations more profitable. And tough anti-grow house laws can force smaller growers out of business, making room for organized crime to move in and take over these cottage industries.

So was Febonio's murder a fluke? Or are the days of the gentle, stoner pot farmer definitively over? The business of marijuana in Florida is coming to look like the Miami cocaine industry of the '80s. As local grow houses start feeling the pinch of Florida's new laws, the cops may be digging up a lot more freezers.

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