Pot Shots

Raiding narcs get a hibiscus low from their horticulture shock

The banging on the door was violent, coming around 2 p.m. Tuesday, July 27. It startled Blair Davis, the landscape contractor who lives in the little house near Highway 6 in west Houston with his two "eco-lawn mower" Barbado sheep, Bonnie and Boo. Davis was on the phone trying to set up a concrete pour for a customer's patio when the pounding began. He put down the phone and went to answer it, but within seconds the unlocked door burst open and Davis says he found himself staring down the barrel of a gun, a stream of burly officers trailing behind it.

"Down on the floor! Down on the floor!" they shouted at him.

"This was just pretty shocking," says Davis, who runs Great Earth Landscape out of his house. "It was just your worst nightmare. I kept saying, 'Somebody pinch me, I must be dreaming.' "

Davis never realized that front yard hibiscus would turn into the Blair Snitch Project for cops.
Michael Serazio
Davis never realized that front yard hibiscus would turn into the Blair Snitch Project for cops.

The only things that pinched him were the steel handcuffs of the Harris County Organized Crime and Narcotics Task Force. As he lay face down in his living room, his mind frantically pedaled through the possibilities: Could these be the armed robbers masquerading as cops that he heard about on the news? These intruders wore T-shirts and blue jeans, though the badges around their necks seemed real enough.

The group, numbering "probably eight -- and it seemed like ten," fanned out in Davis's house, checking his claims that there was no one else around. One yanked him up by the shoulder and sat him down outside. They had a search warrant and they had come for the marijuana plants in Davis's front yard.

Shocked, his confusion clicked into clarity.

"You guys have made a terrible mistake," the 45-year-old says he told them. "Those are not marijuana plants; it is not cannabis sativa. Where in God's name did you get that idea? All you had to do was go up and take a close look."

The plant in question, Texas star hibiscus, reaches out from the tangle of potted flora in his front yard. From a distance, its green leafy fingers, bowing under the weight of humidity, do call to mind the notorious weed that gave Cheech and Chong the munchies.

"But when you walk up," Davis points out, "this smooth, green stem is nothing like the cannabis sativa. Cannabis is a very coarse, rough, almost square stem. Nothing like this stem at all.

"And, of course," he says, gently caressing the cream-white crown at the top of the plant, "cannabis doesn't bloom with big beautiful white buds."


"To us, it's an unfortunate thing that Mr. Davis got caught up in this situation," says Dan Webb, operations commander for the county task force involved in the raid. "But if the situation came up today, we would've probably done the same thing."

According to Webb, a deputy received information from a civilian that Davis had marijuana growing at his residence, drafted a search warrant and solicited Webb's unit to help with the raid. Webb says they did surveillance and confirmed that the suspicious vegetation, in addition to golden yellow bamboo on the windowsill, appeared to be dope. He adds that, in his previous work for the domestic marijuana eradication program, Texas star hibiscus was often confused for marijuana on helicopter flybys.

You don't have to tell that to Rita Hall, president of the American Hibiscus Society.

"We often talk about it and laugh about it, but to my knowledge no one's ever been accused of growing marijuana," says Hall, of St. Petersburg, Florida. "I haven't heard anyone ever say someone came on their property because they thought it was marijuana."

Webb says that although they were mistaken, the search itself wasn't a mistake.

"It's not a mistaken search warrant," he says, reiterating that the warrant is a judge's command to investigate the premises. "This is the first time that I know of anybody growing Texas star hibiscus in their house. And it's just one of those things that, you know, if we believe it's marijuana, until we can go look at it, we're not really going to know for sure."

No records are kept on the ratio of search warrants executed to actual drug busts achieved, Webb admits. He estimates that more than 90 percent of search warrants result in charges. Webb won't divulge the tipster's identity, but Davis already has an idea.

Shortly after the officers released him, he went to a neighboring automotive shop run by J.R. Ramirez to find out if he knew anything, since Ramirez's business was referenced on the warrant. Ramirez said that a car repossessor, whose name he couldn't recall, had been by his shop two weeks earlier and asked if Ramirez knew what Davis was growing in his yard. Curiously, Ramirez notes, the same repo man had been spotted on the street the afternoon authorities descended on Davis's house. When the officers began leaving, removing the handcuffs from Davis, the repo guy himself apparently departed quickly.

Davis, a Houston native who switched his career to landscaping from the computer industry a dozen years ago, says the deputies stayed about an hour. As time wore on and they realized his innocence, he started doing his sales pitch -- just to keep his temper down. They handed him some paperwork before departing, but no apology, he says.

"At first I wanted to laugh and then cry, because it was just so crazy," says Davis. "And then I started to get mad, because this could've been solved in about 20 minutes."

 
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