All posts by Ulacia Ulacia

The Complicated Connections Between Legal Hydroponics and the Marijuana Black Market

Cash seized from the home of a hydroponics gardening store owner in Miami Gardens, Florida. Photos courtesy Miami-Dade Police Department

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Sometime in the middle of the afternoon on April 26, Luis Hernandez-Gonzalez, the 44-year-old owner of a hydroponics gardening store in Miami, Florida, received a call from a customer who had recently moved to Tennessee.

Luis Rego, a 32-year-old alleged pot farmer, was having trouble with his current crop and wanted some advice. Unbeknownst to both men, special agents from the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) were eavesdropping on their conversation as part of an investigation into a ring they believed had set up an illegal grow house network in eight Tennessee counties. According to an excerpt from transcripts of the phone call, Rego said of his crop, "Man, this does not want to even out... In the morning, it's fine, and in the afternoon, it gets sad."

"At what temperature, what percentage do you have it on?" Hernandez-Gonzalez asked.

"Ever since I got here, I put it at 500, 400," Rego replied.

"Take a little picture for me later and send it to me here, so I can see it," the owner instructed.

The following afternoon, after receiving three photos of the plants from Rego, Hernandez-Gonzalez offered instructions via another recorded phone call. "Turn it completely around," he told the aspiring farmer. "After a week of turning it, all that wilting will go away."

Three months later, in a bust that generated international headlines, Hernandez-Gonzalez was arrested on marijuana trafficking, money laundering, and firearm charges. After finding small amounts of weed and $180,000 in cash at his place of business, narcotics investigators wheeled out 24 paint buckets containing shrink-wrapped bundles of cash totaling more than $20 million from a secret attic in Hernandez-Gonzalez's house in the suburb of Miami Lakes, according to an arrest report. Meanwhile, Rego and 11 others were criminally charged in a large-scale marijuana distribution conspiracy in Tennessee in mid June.

The case against Hernandez-Gonzalez put a spotlight on a cottage industry that straddles the letter of the law by selling tools needed to cultivate high-grade weed indoors. In states that have legalized pot for medical and recreational use, hydroponic supply companies are poised for record growth, leading one publicly-traded gardening conglomerate and mainstream brand, Scotts Miracle-Gro, to get in on the action. But in states like Florida where pot farming remains a felonious offense, stores selling hydroponic equipment are battlefronts in the ongoing war against weed.

According to market research firm IBISWorld, the hydroponic gardening retail industry has experienced annual growth of 8.2 percent since 2011, generates $654 million in annual revenue, and employs 11,721 people across the country. "Industry revenue is forecast to continue rising over the five years to 2021, as a result of rising popularity of quality organic produce along with increases in the market for both medical and recreational marijuana," their analysis states.

Michelle Goldman, vice-president of BetterGrow Hydro, a California gardening store chain founded in the 1990s, told VICE that perhaps 25 percent of her customer base grows fruit and vegetables. The majority, though, grow weed under the auspices of the state's robust medical marijuana program, she said. (Voters will get to decide if weed should be legal for recreational use in California this November.)

But in Florida, where the DEA eradicated 242 indoor marijuana grow sites in 2015—second only to California—indoor gardening retailers are catering to a mostly black market clientele with a wink and a nod, according to experts, cops, and local businesspeople. The Sunshine State currently allows only a non-psychoactive form of cannabis for medical use, and while a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize stronger strains of marijuana for very sick people is on the November ballot, pot cultivation over 25 pounds is still a felony punishable by a minimum of three years in prison.

"It's like going into a head shop," Arturo, a manager at Advanced Hydroponics in Miami who asked his last name not be published, said of his industry. "You use a "don't ask, don't tell' policy. If someone references illegal substances, I show them the door. But the truth is that a majority of the growth in our business is due to people getting into growing marijuana."

Miami-Dade Police Detective Jonathan Santana is leading the ongoing case against Hernandez-Gonzalez and has been a narcotics investigator for five years. He told VICE that a standard investigative technique for cops in the area is to just post up at hydroponics stores and follow customers when they leave.

"I have made numerous arrests that originate from these grow stores," he said. "I have never seen anyone who shop at these stores growing fruits and vegetables. It has always been marijuana."

Finn Selander, a former DEA special agent who helped organize the petition drive that placed recreational marijuana on the November ballot in Arizona, agrees there's no question a fair number of hydroponics supply store customers are involved in the marijuana business.

"The stores themselves operate in a legal element," Selander told me. "They may get customers that just want to grow daisies, but the real money is from people buying supplies to start grows."

One of the red buckets recovered at Hernandez-Gonzales's home

For a majority of his 18 years with the DEA, Selander worked as the coordinator or the assistant coordinator for marijuana cases in Orlando, Florida and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Over time, he said, agents stopped monitoring hydroponic stores because it resembled profiling people leaving a bar for driving under the influence.

"I'm sure there are still doing that," he said. "But today, a lot of these stores sell a ton of stuff online. No one is going to get a list of all those people."

While Santana could not comment on Hernandez-Gonzalez's ongoing case specifically, recently filed court documents suggest investigators are still gathering evidence in an attempt to prove the Cuban expat has been using his store, The Blossoms Experience, as a conduit for illicit marijuana trafficking for more than a decade. Hernandez-Gonzalez is in jail—at least until he posts bail money that he can show comes from legitimate sources. (His defense attorney, Philip Reizenstein, declined comment for this story.)

According to an August 12 civil forfeiture lawsuit by the Miami-Dade Police Department against Hernandez-Gonzalez, investigators recently spoke to Efren Ruiz, an ex-con who in 2012 was charged in a Medicaid scam that diverted prescription drugs to treat HIV, schizophrenia and asthma for resale in the black market. During an interview conducted by Santana early this month, Ruiz allegedly claimed that he and Hernandez owned two houses, one in Davie and the other in Big Pine Key, where they grew marijuana between 2003 and 2006, harvesting hundreds of pounds. (In 2005, Hernandez-Gonzalez received probation for intent to sell cannabis.) During the same time period, Ruiz and Hernandez-Gonzalez each invested $60,000 to open The Blossoms Experience, Ruiz apparently admitted.

"Mr. Ruiz stated that he has knowledge that throughout Hernandez's business transactions at The Blossoms Experience, Hernandez would inform his customers that if they growing marijuana, he would purchase marijuana for resale," the forfeiture suit states. When VICE contacted Ruiz at his home in Miami Lakes, he declined to comment.

In a recent motion to reduce Hernandez-Gonzalez's $4 million bond, Reizenstein, his attorney lawyer, argued that investigators still haven't shown a nexus between his client's seized cash and actual marijuana trafficking. "There was no controlled sale of marijuana involving Mr. Hernandez-Gonzalez," the attorney wrote. "And no law enforcement officer saw him in possession of any marijuana or ever discovered Mr. Hernandez-Gonzalez growing any marijuana."

Still, according to BetterGrow's Goldman, the suspect's legal troubles offer a case study of what not to do when operating a hydroponics store in a state where the War on Drugs is still in full effect.

"If you are in a state where marijuana is not legal, getting involved with your customer is a big no no," she told me. "That essentially makes you their partner."

Follow Francisco Alvarado on Twitter.

The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election: The Latest Campaign Shakeup Does Not Look Good for Donald Trump

If Donald Trump's presidential campaign were a sports team, it would be hard to stay a fan, simply because the stars on the roster keep changing. Did you like brusque former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski? Political die hards had to watch Lewandowski slowly decline in power before finally being booted from the campaign in June, and joining CNN. Now, with less than 80 days left in the campaign, Trump's Russia-loving campaign chairman Paul Manafort is gone too.

With the latest polls continuing to give a healthy, if not totally comfortable, lead to Hillary Clinton, experts told VICE this latest shake-up may not spell certain doom, but it's a disaster nonetheless.

"It's not that uncommon for candidates to fire their campaign managers, often as a way to divert attention away from some bad news or bad polls," said Melissa Michelson, an author and politics professor at Menlo College whose work focuses on elections. She pointed to similar firings of campaign staffers, like John McCain's early in the 2008 campaign, and Al Gore's early in the summer of 2000. They were fired, she said to "signal to the public that the candidate is changing."

But she added that the Trump campaign dismissals aren't just symbolic scapegoating meant to calm the nerves of donors. Trump is hiring people, and those people are "screwing up," as Michelson put it. Compared to Gore or McCain's campaign jitters, this staff change "reflects differently on campaign," because "his attempts so far to hire people seem to be ending badly," according to Michelson.

Manafort left amid reports that he had illegally dodged some disclosures about operating as a Russian agent in Ukraine—a fact that had drawn criticism on its own. Before Manafort, Lewandowski had battled allegations of battery on the campaign trail. It makes Trump's promise to "hire the best people" look pretty ridiculous.

"The question is can you do this with two-and-a-half months until the general election? That's why this is rather unprecedented," said Richard E. Berg-Andersson, creator of TheGreenPapers.com, one of the first online election trackers. Berg-Andersson likened the change to "when McGovern had to dump Thomas Eagleton as his running mate." McGovern, who got his ass kicked by Richard Nixon, called the decision to fire Eagleton "the saddest part" of his campaign.

"I don't think it's quite on that level," Berg-Andersson hastened to add.

However, it's worth noting that Manafort was initially hired for a specific task: to shepherd Trump through the primary. "One thing to keep in mind is that Paul Manafort's role in the campaign was to bring a polished political machine to the conventions," said Sarah Rosier, the federal editor of the election-tracking site Ballotpedia. "Manafort did what he was hired to do."

"The hires of Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway represent, in a way, a return to the style that made Trump successful in the primaries: less political polish, more populist fire," Rosier said, referring to Trump's two new campaign heads. Bannon, the new chief executive, is a former spokesman for the conservative news site Breitbart.com, and Conway, Trump's new manager, is a former pollster. Long story short, Bannon is expected to Make Trump Great Again by once again unleashing the candidate's meannness and populism—as if they were ever leashed.

Before Manafort officially left the Trump campaign, analysts like Nate Silver derided the back-to-primary-mode general election strategy as a way to further alienate undecided voters. But according to Brian Balogh, a historian at the University of Virginia and one of the hosts of the radio show Backstory with the American History Guys, there is a fleeting possibility that Conway could work wonders in Manafort's absence for all anyone knows.

"Maybe the new campaign director has a kind of relationship that will make her effective in convincing Trump to stay on message," Balogh said, "but so far nobody has been able to get him to stay on message when the message is something other than Trump."

According to Rosier, if the move really is going to pay off, we'll know soon. "The next few weeks will tell us whether or not the Trump Train can regain some steam," she said.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.

‘We Live in Public’ Director Talks About the Narcissistic World Her Documentary Predicted

Screenshot from the trailer of We Live In Public via

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

The first series of Big Brother aired in the UK in July 2000, but six months earlier, a bunker in New York was already acting as an extreme prototype. Internet millionaire Josh Harris put 150 people underground and surrounded them with food, drink, guns, and, most importantly, webcams, as an artistic experiment about the loss of privacy in the digital age. In the film We Live In Public, which came out in 2009, acclaimed documentarian Ondi Timoner charts Harris' fall from grace, which culminated in him livestreaming himself and his partner's 24/7 arguments and falling-outs, awaiting the reaction of the viewers to see who they thought had the upper hand in the fight.

Seven years on, I wanted to catch up with Ondi to discuss Josh's now clearly prophetic predictions about modern culture's willingness to relieve itself of its privacy, and what she does herself to stay away from its trappings.

VICE: How much have you heard from Josh Harris since the film came out?
Ondi Timoner: I'm in regular touch with Josh. We're both working on something right now, so I just saw him and had a wonderful time in Montreal.

So it's a continuous working relationship?
Yeah. We co-own the rights to We Live In Public, he has a good deal of interest in the film and what's going on and so on and so forth.

Is it usual for filmmaker and subject to have such a relationship in the documentary world?
No, I don't think so . But this is a prophecy for the time we're living in now. It's a prophecy for everything from reality TV to social media, oversharing, and lack of privacy and intimacy, new ways of forming intimacy—you know, it was all kind of set forth in the bunker in a way, and very hard to really decipher until Facebook. That's when I decided to finish the film—when I saw the first public posting on Facebook saying, "'I'm driving west on the freeway,' posted two hours ago," and I thought, "Who cares?" And then all of a sudden people were like "Wow! You're on the west side?!" and I was like, 'What?' I just had this feeling in my gut like, oh my god the bunker's coming true, I've got to finish this movie right now.

What's the most striking parallel between what we see in the film and in real life?
It seemed quite over-the-top when Josh first said that we were all going to be trapped in virtual reality. The first line of the movie is Josh saying, "Lions and tigers were kings of the jungle then they wound up in cages. I believe the same will happen to us." That seemed kind of implausible, but now it seems we're trading our privacy. We're accepting terms and conditions that can be changed at any time that are 48 pages long that we can't read, and we are allowing our data and our wishes and privacy online because it's so convenient. The value proposition is beneficial to us, we like it, we want to have that stuff instantly. We're losing our ability to focus on the physical world. You walk through a space and everybody's faces are in their phones. We are putting ourselves in these virtual boxes as he predicted we were going to.

Of course, reality TV is coming to be this incredible platform for people voluntarily demeaning themselves for some kind of fame. Josh said everybody wants their 15 minutes of fame every day, and will trade anything for that. I said I think it's more about us feeling a connection; I think that's what motivates us more. It's more about not feeling alone and feeling like if we do something that gets some traffic, some hits, along with the shot of dopamine that's released in our brains we also receive a feeling of—not immortality, but significance. But the ultimate goal is immortality. The idea of rising above the fray and the noise in this era is next to impossible. Josh was right about that too—it's gonna be faster and faster that it gets thrown away. There's so much because everybody's uploading their lives for that moment, for that significance.

It sounds like you have a more positive view on it than Josh. His work is based on criticizing people's mass narcissism, and yours is more about connection and togetherness.
I think Josh felt like he wanted that a lot. It was very thrilling to him, as it's thrilling to most people, to end up in a magazine or newspaper or something. Then it becomes at a certain point taken for granted if you're a celebrity, and then it becomes totally annoying. My last film was about Russell Brand. It's another look at the desire . As he says, "escape the penitentiary of anonymity," and the only way to get out of that prison of being a common person was getting famous. Again, it was a look at that drive filtered through the someone who actually did accomplish that and kind of came up empty. I don't think everybody's after that though. I do think we all want to feel like our lives matter and will give up almost anything for that. However that plays out.

Ondi Timoner in conversation with the Young Turks from their YouTube channel via

Do you think there will be some sort of Luddite-esque movement in the future, where people shirk technology?
It's funny you mention it. I have a new series in pre-production set in the jungle. It's a bunch of kids, a bunch of young people, who are facing climate disaster and feeling overwhelmed and trapped in their cushy wired world and are looking for another way to live, moving down there to build the world's most sustainable modern town.

But on a wider scale?
I think that's a bellwether sign right there. I see the project as We Live In Public in reverse. I actually think it's very significant. There were around 150 people in the bunker, and there'll be that many in the jungle. It's very hard for them to make that transition, but they come out the other side wanting to throw their phones against the wall.

Did making the film ever put you off the internet?
I've been asked that question a lot over the years, and I always say, "We'll organize going offline, online." We'll use the internet to go offline but we won't stay offline. It's too compelling. It's the greatest invention; it's bigger than all of us, one of the most major, along with airplane and penicillin. There are ways to use the internet to collectively make our lives better than it would be without it. There are so many positives and it's not all dark. I have a much less dark view. It was a film I made about Josh's prophecy more than my own.

There is definitely a dark side, we're seeing that. Alex Gibney made a new film about Stuxnet (an alleged American-Israeli cyber weapon) and that's just the beginning of cyber warfare on a massive scale. And, you know, people taking over your car and hacking into your car and driving it, disabling your breaks—whatever. Anything that's powerful for good can be used just as powerfully for evil. And if you ask Josh Harris, he'll tell you that within the next 20 years, we'll be completely trapped inside the borg. That's his latest thing. He's pretty sure of it. He just said it in front of an audience in Montreal.

How did they react to that?
Nobody was pleased! Some people fought him on it, some people stood up and acknowledged it.

'We Live in Public' trailer via YouTube

Could this modern level of ultra-intimacy be good for us?
I think we just have to stay sober with it. The reason I made the movie when I made the movie is to fire a warning shot and to say 'be cautious.' People cried and started to tear down their Facebook pages at We Live In Public screenings, and I said, it's not about that. Enjoy it, use it to connect with people that you haven't spoken to in forever—there's a lot of really positive attributes to it but, put the phone down and have dinner. Once you put something online, it's never yours to make private again. Remain conscious. Let it work for you and not against you.

There's some distortion of vocabulary—something like 'friends' on Facebook. I never liked that term. It might be somebody you're a fan of or somebody you appreciate or somebody that you're connecting with for something else. It's a network. I don't like LinkedIn very much, but that's a more accurate description of the relationship. It's just a matter of staying sober. It's something you could literally dive into and never come out. And don't raise your children on screens all the time.

I have a child, he's 12, and I have to fight him every day to get him off the internet and get him off games and make him go outside. I got him a puppy and I make him play with the puppy and he loves the puppy, but his draw is to go to the screen and that's where he is forming his friendships. And there is something to be said for sharing while you're playing a game with somebody, being more able to be honest and less self-conscious than if they were meeting a church somewhere, or something. It's not that it's less real because they're talking on the internet—it's just that they can't see that other person and it can be dangerous and you need to educate your children. The danger is the desensitization that happens when living online or on a screen.

That's a big message from the film that remains true today, and even more true as we tumble on this ride together across time and space and this fantastic internet.

Follow Joe Bish on Twitter.

A Secret Gay Language Has Gone Mainstream in the Philippines

Illustration by Lili Emtiaz

Three years ago, after Wil Dasovich completed his bachelor's degree at California Polytechnic State University, he did what many young graduates do: He planned a several-month-long backpacking trip abroad. The only difference is that Dasovich never returned to the United States.

Instead, after traveling through Indonesia and Singapore, he was scouted for commercial modeling in Manila. He decided to stay, and soon found himself working his way up the ranks of the Philippines' entertainment industry. Half Filipino, he realized he wanted to connect with his roots on a deeper level.

"I figured I might as well immerse myself in the culture. It was a bucket-list thing," he told VICE. "My entire life I wanted to speak Filipino—since I am Filipino—so I thought this was an opportunity to learn it."

Dasovich began picking up bits of Tagalog (also called Filipino), the country's first official language, listening closely to conversations and repeating things he heard his friends say. This, however, wasn't nearly as straightforward a method as he imagined.

An archipelago republic of more than 7,500 islands, the Philippines remains one of the world's most linguistically diverse regions, with a heritage of Malayo-Polynesian languages and the lingering colonial influence of Spanish and American occupation. Even as English increasingly grows as a dominating cultural force, people across the country still speak more than 170 languages. Of those, the government has designated two as official—Tagalog and English—and nineteen as auxiliary languages.

Tagalog itself is only spoken as a first language by a quarter of the population, so it's no surprise that Dasovich would hear a hodgepodge of words and phrases. It's within this ethnolinguistic melting pot that he first encountered Swardspeak (aka Bekinese and Bekimon). A coded lexicon mostly spoken by gay men, Swardspeak draws from English and Tagalog, as well as Spanish and, to a lesser extent, Japanese. It's what might be referred to as an "anti-language," the lingua franca of an "anti-society"—in this case, the Philippines' gay subculture.

To Filipino speakers, Swardspeak sounds witty and twangy, and it immediately identifies the speaker as homosexual. "At first, I couldn't tell the difference between gay lingo and 'normal talk,'" Dasovich admits. "To me, everything seemed Filipino—just another foreign language."

Swardspeak is both playful and mind-bogglingly complex. Many terms come from the names of celebrities, brands and a cornucopia of other colorful sources. "Walang Julanis Morisette," for instance, translates to "there's no rain," a play on a lyric from Alanis Morissette's single "Ironic"—"it's like rain on your wedding day." It is language as pun, as inside joke, as subversion—and it is as metaphorical as it is ephemeral.

"When I finally understood gay lingo, I thought it was hilarious—the use of celebrity names as words, the intonation," he recalls. Filipinos are surprised to find foreigners who can fluently speak Tagalog, let alone Swardspeak. "And when I began speaking it, people thought that was hilarious. So I went out of my way to learn it."

Dasovich chronicled his journey learning Filipino in a YouTube series called "The Art of Tagalog." In one video, he spoke Swardspeak; almost immediately, the clip went viral, garnering some 400,000 views and landing Dasovich spots on national television in the country. This made him one of the most popular vloggers in the Philippines, and the success of his series has since earned him his own TV show, "TFC Connect," aired on the The Filipino Channel.


His viral clip also serves as a window into the evolution of gay slang. Although he may not have known it at the time, Dasovich—who self-identifies as straight—was showing how Swardspeak has been appropriated by mainstream heterosexual society.

Far from a recent phenomena, the origins of gay slang stretches back decades. The film critic Nestor Torre apparently coined the term Swardspeak in the '70s, but the lingo it designates had emerged years before as a way for gay men to exclusively communicate among each other—a cultural safe space disguised as slang, a series of codes to identify fellow "deviants."

But over the last several decades, Filipinos have become increasingly more accepting of gay men—a 2013 Pew Research Center survey found the Philippines to have the most positive views toward homosexuality among Asian countries, despite reports of ongoing discrimination and hate crimes against LGBT individuals. Words and phrases from Swardspeak have, in turn, permeated Filipino pop culture. This is especially true in industries typically dominated by gay men, such as show business.

It's something Dasovich hears every day in his work. "Anyone in the entertainment industry uses it. Girls use it all the time," he says. "Even some straight guys use it. Especially comedians."

These patterns are reminiscent of anti-languages in other parts of the world—some that have vanished as the notion of an "anti-society" crumbled.

In many ways, the historic trajectory of Swardspeak parallels Polari, a British gay secret language that was widely spoken among gay men and theater types in the early-to-mid 20th century.

Polari was popularized in the mainstream by two notably campy characters, Julian and Sandy, on the 1960s BBC radio show Round the Horne. As society slowly became more open, certain words from Polari crept out of London's gay pubs and into commonplace British slang. By the time the UK Sexuality Offences Act legalized private homosexual acts in 1967, Polari fell into disuse and all but disappeared. This decline could be accredited to the stigma associated with using it as it came to embody camp stereotypes in Britain, but gay men also had fewer reasons to speak an anti-language as culture became more hospitable. Only time will tell if Swardspeak will eventually follow the path of Polari to irrelevance and eventual cultural neglect.

Just as cultural trends change, so do Swardspeak words' definitions evolve and quickly shift, like a verbal jazz which riffs upon and constantly reinterprets the world at large. "There are many words that started in gay lingo that people use, many that people don't realize started that way," Dasovich says, increasingly aware of the influence Swardspeak has on the language he uses every day. And this is perhaps what makes Swardspeak a singular, and singularly modern, language: "It's always evolving—sometimes rapidly."

Follow Jon Shadel on Twitter.