Marijuana crops are relatively common in rural areas, on public lands and even, at times, hidden in farmers' fields, but beside a busy highway in Chicago — not so much.

Share story

CHICAGO — Of all the remote hillsides where a patch of marijuana might grow unnoticed, just off a major highway in the nation’s third most populous city hardly seems the place. Yet that was where the authorities this week uncovered a virtual marijuana farm: plants up to 10 feet tall in perfect rows across land the size of two football fields, and all within Chicago’s city limits.

“I never thought I’d see something like this,” said Edward Graney, a tactical flight officer for the Cook County Sheriff’s Police, who was on a routine helicopter flight Tuesday when he noticed a glimmer of lime green.

Even then, he doubted what he was seeing and took photographs that would later send a team of officers into the city’s far South Side.

“When I walked in there to get my head around this, I couldn’t believe how big it was,” he said. “I was in shock. Basically, someone put 1,500 plants in the middle of an industrial park.”

This week, save 90% on digital access.

By Thursday, an investigation was under way, although no arrests had been made in connection with the plants, which authorities described as the city’s largest such discovery outdoors in memory.

Marijuana crops are relatively common in rural areas, on public lands and even, at times, hidden in farmers’ fields, but Chicago police are far more accustomed to finding secret growing operations indoors.

“This isn’t normal for Chicago,” said Nick Roti, chief of the Chicago Police Department’s bureau of organized crime.

There were reasons such an elaborate planting — with a street value of $7 million to $10 million, according to the police — could go unnoticed for what is estimated to have been four to six months.

Its location, while beside a busy highway and not far from a residential neighborhood, is within an industrial area traveled mainly by trucks. And the plants themselves were surrounded by a perimeter of tall, dense — and legal — plants.

A makeshift lookout, complete with food and a pile of blankets, was abandoned when the police arrived.

Not only were the crops bulldozed and burned, officials said, but special wood chips were distributed to discourage new plantings.

If the discovery appeared to be some modern twist on the city’s 19th-century motto, “Urbs in horto” (Latin for “City in a garden”), no one here seemed particularly concerned that a rash of outdoor marijuana operations was now conceivable in Chicago.

“Frankly, there’s just not many wide-open places,” Roti said.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.