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First They Came for the Tomato Growers…

A suspicious building is being constructed in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, along the southern bank of the Missouri River in Berkley Riverfront Park, near the Kansas City River Market. The purpose of the building, a massive hydroponic greenhouse, is ostensibly legitimate: “The 100,000-square-foot greenhouse would grow mostly lettuce, tomatoes and herbs with local consumers in mind.”

Hydroponic, you say? Herbs, you say?

Cue the Missouri Highway Patrol, because to them, those two words can mean only one thing: marijuana.

And no, I’m not kidding. Just ask the folks who run hydroponic gardening stores in Kansas City — or who used to, before their customers quit coming. Police would park near the store, note the license plate numbers of those who made purchases, and then get search warrants to go through their homes looking for pot.

And no, I’m not kidding. Just ask the guy who was hassled back in 2011 for purchasing equipment used for . . . wait for it . . . tomatoes:

“What I saw today was not protection,” the unnamed man told KMBC. (He didn’t want his name used because he’s an emergency responder and doesn’t want to lose his job.)

“That was harassment, all because of where I made a purchase.”

The man continued: “The last time I checked, it wasn’t illegal to grow a tomato plant, but it makes you wonder. … I understand that a lot of people use hydroponic equipment for illegal ways, but that’s just like saying everybody who buys a gun is going to be a criminal and murder somebody.”

(Link to the video in the story above is broken, but can be found here.)

This kind of police activity in still going on, on both sides of the state line, as orchid growers and winter indoor gardeners can tell you. Thus far, the authorities have not been commenting much on these hydroponic stakeouts, but that changed on Thursday evening, because a Kansas couple that was caught up in all this decided to push back last March with a lawsuit demanding records that show why the police searched their home and trash. Oh, and did I mention this couple are former CIA employees?

And no, I’m not kidding.

The couple received the records on Thursday, and they tell a simple story. The couple purchased hydroponic equipment in 2011, and seven months later, the police began going through their trash each week at 5am. On the third week, they thought they hit the jackpot: a small quantity of stems and wet leafy materials that tested positive for marijuana in a field test. They got a search warrant, and a raid on the house turned up nothing illegal. The police went back to their lab, retested the materials in the lab setting this time, and this time the results were negative.

So what were those stems and wet leafy materials? Tea.

And no, I’m not kidding.

The family believes Addie Harte’s loose tea is the only thing deputies could have found. They were even more convinced after lab results showed the samples from the trash showed a “peak for caffeine”.

The raid on the family’s home wasn’t a simple “here’s a search warrant, and we’d like to walk through your home” kind of thing. It was conducted by a full tactical squad with assault rifles drawn and held on the family.

And no, I’m not ^%*$#! kidding.

When the tactical-dressed deputies arrived at the home in the 10300 block of Wenonga Lane, Robert Harte was forced to lie shirtless on the foyer while a deputy with an assault rifle stood over him, according to the Harte’s lawsuit. The children, a 7-year-old girl and 13-year-old boy, reportedly came out of their bedrooms terrified, the teenager with his hands in the air.

The release of these records is not the end of the story, though.

Now more than ever, the Hartes feel the need to make their battle public after hearing from other families who say this happened to them, too.

“We kind of feel like we’re uniquely in a position to do something,” Addie Harte explained. “We have the resources. We have nothing to hide … somebody has to stand up and say ‘This has to stop!’ We’re trying to make a difference and trying to teach our kids that you have to do the right thing.”

So far, the Hartes have only sued the Johnson County Sheriff’s office for the records surrounding their search warrant. They are now weighing their future legal options.

Good for them.

But if I were the folks who were putting in that big hydroponic greenhouse near the River Market, I’d be sure to expect a few visits. Anybody who buys that much hydroponic equipment to grow “herbs” is sure to raise suspicions in the law enforcement community.

On the other hand, maybe the police will decide this kind of targeting customers of hydroponic stores isn’t worth the time they’re investing in it after all, and they’ll start staking out kitchen stores that sell pressure cookers instead, because we all know what people use pressure cookers for.


h/t to Bob and Mary for the photo of these suspicious-looking hydroponic plants (used under Creative Commons). Sure, *they* say that these are tomato plants, but that’s exactly what you’d expect them to say, right?
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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

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