ROME -– Led by the unmistakable smell of pot, Italian authorities stumbled across the biggest marijuana-plant cultivation site ever discovered in Rome –- right below the vaults of the Bank of Italy.
On the outskirts of the Eternal City, where the ruins of ancient aqueducts stand next to dilapidated warehouses, officers out on a routine patrol Monday detected the odor of marijuana rising from an air duct of an underground tunnel, according to a statement by the Guardia di Finanza, or financial police. The officers followed their noses to a metal door that opened on to what appeared to be a subterranean mushroom-growing business.
But after pushing aside a few bricks of a false wall, the agents stepped into a 43,000-square-foot tunnel filled with marijuana plants in various stages of growth, dozens of halogen lights to help them along and advanced climate-control, irrigation and fertilization systems, police said.
The ostensible mushroom growers had in fact been cultivating 750 pounds of pot, worth about $3.7 million, police said. Rome's record heat this summer had given rise to the distinctive aroma that tipped off authorities.
The owner of the mushroom-growing business was arrested and police are investigating possible connections to organized crime. Authorities are also looking for people who may have worked in the tunnel.
News reports said part of the underground hot house was located just beneath vaults belonging to the Bank of Italy, the country's equivalent of the U.S. Federal Reserve. The marijuana plot was inside a tunnel built in the 1930s as part of a subway project ordered by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. The advent of World War II halted work, and the tunnel was abandoned.
-- Sarah Delaney