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How well do you know your neighbors? Pot growing in the suburbs

Pot-growing operations have grabbed recent headlines with their audacious move into the suburbs, where an entire house — and sometimes three or four houses in one development — are gutted and turned into a full-time criminal operation, the profits of which are at an all-time high.

Television cameramen get images of marijuana in an upscale home in Diamond Bar, Calif., on March 28, 2007. Detectives seized more than 1,800 marijuana plants, in the second such raid in Diamond Bar in a week. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

Sergeant Lou Camiso of the Naperville (IL) PD Special Enforcement Unit confirms the trend.

“Serious growers will buy a house for $300-400,000 and turn the whole thing into a grow operation,” he says. “You’ll make your money back in a year on that investment.”

(In fact, he says that pot is selling for more than cocaine in some areas, making this a very real possibility.)

“Grow houses,” also called “grow-ops,” are a strictly controlled year-round growing environment:  Windows are covered in dark plastic so natural light won’t interfere with the simulated seasonal spectrum of the indoor lamps, It's also common for the entire ventilation system to be ripped out and rebuilt to accommodate moisture.

The good news is, there's no way growers can hide signs of such drastic renovations. 

In most cases, nobody will actually live there. Usually a caretaker who is assigned to the house will come and go at short intervals and odd hours. Apart from a small area inside the house where he sleeps, the house is not equipped for people. For this reason, the condition of the house, as well as the lawn and areas that require upkeep, will probably be very unkempt.

Another tip-off is unusual vents for intake and exhaust — check for industrial vents on the side of the house and along the roofline. “Compare fixtures to the other houses on the block, which were probably built around the same time,” Camiso says. (Growers try to get around this by converting the fireplace and chimney into a ventilation system so that an outside vent isn’t detected.)

Trays used to grow marijuana plants in a home converted into a hydroponic garden are seen scattered in a backyard in Elk Grove, Calif., Sept. 20, 2006. Authorities have raided more than two dozen homes in the Sacramento-Stockton area where the homes have been turned into elaborate hot-houses for the cultivation of high grade marijuana. Officials suspect the operation is connected to organized crime.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Check for mold and peeling paint. These operations require a massive amount of water. The moisture and humidity can have deleterious effects on structures. After three or four years of using the house as a grow operation, it will be nearly worthless, full of mold and rotting wood.

(The eaves are especially hard-hit. If people convert their attic, air will come out their eave vents; you’ll see things like peeling paint, and a lot of moisture and condensation.)

Grow houses require an extraordinary amount of energy for lamps (grow-ops can use three to ten times more power than the average home). In order to avoid racking up huge electric bills and risk being flagged by the electric company (and the authorities), growers will steal electricity. This can mean digging out around the main to bypass it at the meter, or, if electricity is coming in by way of the roof, you’ll see unusual splices coming in.

Neighbors will often notice a pungently sweet smell emanating from the house.

Due to the magnitude of these operations, there isn’t one obvious harvest season. Each floor of the house can ostensibly be a distinct season; growers are constantly harvesting different stages of grow. It’s a year-round gig. This means that foot traffic will be constant.

Also, there isn’t an identifiable “grower’s personality,” like a throwback hippie stereotype. Cannabis is drawing a vast and diverse network of criminal enterprises —  for instance bikers, Camiso says (especially up in Canada). “Biker gangs will find a guy with a grow operation, then take it over with intimidation.”

 In Coldwater Creek, Georgia a middle-class housing development outside Atlanta, neighbors respect each other's privacy. Officials say that's an ideal condition for growing marijuana in the suburbs.
Watch the 3.28.07 video: Pot farm in the suburbs

Grow houses in the news:

High-tech 'pot factories' popping up in suburban homes in California 9.24.06
Tex. home transformed into a 'grow house' 3.4.07
'Grow houses' may soon be on the market 4.2.07
Huge pot farm found inside upscale Calif. Home 3.22.07
'I didn't know ... this was going on' 3.22.07
Fla. agency finds $542,000 marijuana-growing operation 3.22.07

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