Illegal marijuana growers turning hot real estate into hothouses
By John Ritter
LATHROP, Calif. — Rick Estrada didn't think it particularly odd that he never saw his next-door neighbor or that curtains were always drawn. On his block of new homes, everyone was a recent arrival. In fact, some homes still sit empty, owned by investors hoping to "flip" them at a profit.
Never in his darkest dreams did Estrada think the two-story house a few feet from his contained an indoor marijuana-growing operation that authorities believe is the latest wrinkle in drug traffickers' efforts to hide their illegal business.
"We came from San Jose to get away from that stuff," says Estrada, 42, a medical clinic supervisor with a wife and three young children. "Now here we are and it's right next-door."
Estrada watched on Jan. 12 as federal drug agents busted into the unoccupied, stucco-clad house, hauling out enough marijuana plants to fill a truck, along with high-intensity lights, fans and other indoor hydroponic growing equipment.
Agents that day raided five other houses nearby in Lathrop and one in Tracy, both suburban cities full of commuters to San Francisco Bay Area jobs. In August and September, 41 houses were busted in Elk Grove, Sacramento and Stockton.
Gordon Taylor, a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) special agent in Sacramento, says investigators believe the houses are linked to an organized crime syndicate based in San Francisco's Chinatown.
"They're purchasing homes and plunking down marijuana factories smack dab in the middle of our residential neighborhoods," Taylor says. "Our theory is they're picking newer neighborhoods because of the relative anonymity. They know the neighbors don't know each other as well as they would in established neighborhoods."
Suburban pot-growing was found elsewhere — Merrillville, Ind.; Westminster, Md.; Kankakee County, Ill. — though on a smaller scale than in Northern California and not necessarily tied to organized crime. Last summer, agents broke up more than 50 "grow houses" and arrested 35 people in St. Lucie County, Fla., an enterprise "with tentacles that stretched" to New York, the DEA says.
In December, New Hampshire state police seized more than 10,000 plants in a four-bedroom, neo-Colonial house in the quiet town of Derry. Last month, police in Bellevue, Wash., seized 300 plants in a grow house and arrested three men.
The prevalence of illegal marijuana cultivation in California — more plants are seized in the state annually than in any other — is due partly to "medical marijuana laws that have created a permissive attitude," Taylor says.
"Couple that with the fast profits that can be made and relatively lax penalties a person faces under California marijuana laws, and you're more or less inviting organized crime to enter the industry."
California voters legalized medical marijuana in 1996.
TV shows such as Showtime's Weeds, about a single mom who makes ends meet selling pot in a fictional California suburb, seem to legitimize an illegal drug, Taylor says.
Indoor pot seizures in California have skyrocketed, according to DEA figures, from 54,569 in 2004 to 196,000 last year, although it's unclear whether tougher enforcement or more growers is the reason. The Northern California suburban busts since August have netted 23,602 plants with an estimated $94 million street value, the DEA says.
Critics say the DEA overstates medical marijuana's impact on illegal activities and inflates the value of seizures to justify its budget.
"On any given day, millions of Californians are smoking marijuana, so the medical-marijuana piece of that is relatively small," says Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance, which promotes alternatives to the war on drugs.
The presence of organized crime in the pot business is nothing new, Nadelmann says. "They've been involved on and off for many years."
What is new is the size and sheer audacity found in the suburbs. The operations followed a similar pattern, according to Taylor and court documents in the recent cases:
Growers paid up to $750,000 for houses in new subdivisions, usually obtaining 100% financing and putting no money down. They gutted interiors and used every inch to grow pot, knocking down some walls and cutting holes in others to run water lines and ducts. They installed irrigation systems with timing devices and brought in water tanks, pumps, generators and power packs. They built scaffolding to raise plants 2 feet off the floor.
To avoid suspicion from large power usage, growers bypassed a utility's electric meters and created their own circuit boxes. No one lived in the houses. After neighbors tipped off police last summer that garbage cans weren't being taken to the street on trash day, the growers started putting the cans out. They also hired gardeners to cut the lawn.
Taylor says tips from neighbors led to many of the busts, but most residents were unaware. Feelings are mixed over whether their neighborhoods are now safe.
"It still seems like a nice neighborhood," says Richard Johnson, who moved here a month ago. "It happened, they're gone, so hopefully it won't happen again."
Samantha Malone says she's moving.
"I have babies. I don't want to be around that," she says. "Who's to say it's all taken care of anyway, or it's not going to happen next month."
Rick Estrada says that since the busts, "the neighborhood is more aware. We're going to be a lot more alert to what's happening and who our neighbors are. We're going to notice if no one's ever home."
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Pot growing moves to Calif. suburbs