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Growers converting suburban houses to marijuana farms

SACRAMENTO BEE May 21, 2006

Sacramento Police found at least 10 homes used exclusively for pot cultivation in the last year

SACRAMENTO -- The lawn is patchy and pocked with weeds. Overgrown rose bushes and shaded windows suggest neglect. But inside the house in suburban Sacramento, a professional gardener's touch abounds.

Sophisticated lighting and perfect growing conditions made the residence an ideal marijuana farm, according to Sacramento police. Almost every room in the two-story home near an elementary school had been adapted for the care and nurturing of almost 2,000 plants, authorities said.

The sophisticated operation is typical of what law enforcement says is the newest trend in the marijuana trade -- growing pot quietly and unseen in the midst of middle-class suburban neighborhoods.

"From the outside the homes look normal, but inside they're strictly used for marijuana cultivation," Sacramento Police Detective Chou Vang said.

Sacramento Police have discovered at least 10 houses used exclusively for marijuana cultivation during the last year, Vang said. In one case from 2005, four people, all in their early 20s with connections to three homes, were found guilty of multiple charges of marijuana cultivation, said Sacramento Deputy District Attorney Leslie Monahan, who prosecuted the case.

"They are literally just raking in money. It is purely just profit," Monahan said.

The trend is relatively new to Sacramento, having swept south from British Columbia and Ontario, Canada, where home cultivation has been popular for years, authorities said. The "marijuana grow houses" also have started springing up in Florida and Puerto Rico, Drug Enforcement Agency officials said.

In the Bay Area this month, 12 people face charges of marijuana cultivation after authorities found a vast network of indoor hydroponic-type grows in three homes and three warehouses in the East Bay and Santa Cruz, U.S. Attorney officials said.

The farm in the Sacramento residence came to the attention of police May 11. A neighbor reported a prowler creeping around the home about 8:10 p.m., Sacramento Police Sgt. Terrell Marshall said.

Officers checked the home and found an open back door, Marshall said. They walked in and discovered 379 nearly mature marijuana plants and 1,400 smaller plants in the living room, dining room and four bedrooms. The street value of the plants and equipment was almost $1 million, he said.

Marshall said the suspects are still at large.

The owner of the home, Hung Dang, said his family purchased it four years ago as a rental and inherited the tenants from the previous owner. The family owns several rental properties, he said, and did not have regular contact with the renters or visit the property.

"I just found out about it. I had no idea," Dang said.

Law enforcement officials said that the best way of stopping the indoor growth is by educating homeowners and neighbors about the problem.

"Police are becoming a lot more effective at finding these grows as the public becomes more aware of the problem," said Constable Sal Baslione, a spokesperson for Niagara Regional Police, a city in Ontario, Canada, of more than 400,000 people. Baslione said his department receives about two reports a month of marijuana "home grows."

"It is a problem, there's no doubt about that," Baslione said.

There are challenges to growing hundreds of marijuana plants in a home designed for growing families. Powerful lights must simulate the movement of the sun. Drip systems must be installed. Fans and timers are required. In the case Monahan prosecuted, beams had been installed in the ceilings to hold the sophisticated system.

And the equipment burns far more energy than a family of four.

At the Sacramento home, the growers tapped into a SMUD electric line and hijacked power so their excessive energy usage wouldn't register on the utility meter, Vang said.

"That can be extremely dangerous," Vang said. "They had to know what they were doing."

Indoor plants are typically smaller than marijuana grown outdoors. But they have other appeals, said Gordon Taylor, assistant special agent in charge of the Sacramento office for the DEA.

Outdoor marijuana seeds are planted in April and harvested in September, providing one yield each year. Indoor plants grow much faster. They require only 60 to 90 days to cultivate and can be grown year-round, Taylor said.

"They're not going to get as large a plant, but they make up for it by getting four harvests a year," Taylor said.

Another benefit to indoor cultivation is the plant buds have a higher level of tetrahydrocannabinol, the main chemical in marijuana, authorities said.

Growers in Western Canada use indoor cultivation to produce highly potent marijuana called "B.C. Bud." Outdoor buds have a THC level of 8 percent, while B.C. Bud can reach 20 percent, Taylor said.

"It's extremely potent but very expensive," he said.

The type of marijuana found in the Sacramento home is not as potent as B.C. Bud, Vang said. But it is stronger than outdoor marijuana and sells at $5,000 to $7,000 a pound on the street, Vang said.

Authorities do not need agricultural expertise to understand the motive.

"It's very lucrative," Vang said.