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23/09/2007 00:00:00

US: Marijuana in suburbs a lucrative enterprise

The homes looked like countless others lining suburbia's streets and
pictured in Southern California real estate brochures - except the
shades were always drawn, the garbage bins were empty, and no one ever
seemed to be home.

The nearly million-dollar houses, scattered across the Inland Valley on
well-manicured streets and cul-de-sacs named after trees and Spanish
landmarks, shared a secret.

One by one, they had been turned into factories, all with the same
hallmarks: high-tech lighting and watering systems, complicated - and
usually illegal and dangerous - power hookups, and the isolated comings
and goings of people who clearly didn't live in the homes, but instead
seemed to be ... checking on something.

Something green, leafy and illegal.

Today's marijuana mills are in some of the region's finer homes, from a
four-bedroom split-level in Diamond Bar to an upscale Apple Valley home
worth $650,000. The operations are a far cry from the backwoods
greenhouses and underground grow bunkers often favored by suburban pot
cultivators. The relative opulence of the houses is a clear sign that
today's growers have changed their tactics and will invest a lot into
masking a highly lucrative business.

In June alone, the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department's
narcotics division seized a total of 4,416 plants with a potential value
of $15 million, making it one of their busiest months this year.

Though the pace of the busts slowed as the summer wore on, two recent
incidents served as reminders of the ongoing crackdown:

On Sept. 10, members of a drug task force shot and killed one man and
launched a manhunt for two others after they discovered an outdoor
marijuana farm near Lytle Creek containing about 3,000 plants worth up
to $9 million.

On Sept. 12, authorities found 700 marijuana plants with a potential
value of $2.5 million in an Eastvale home whose residents had moved in
just six months earlier. Three men, all of Asian descent and from out of
state, were arrested in connection with the grow operation.

"This has turned into the next drug trend," said Art Marinello, special
agent supervisor of the San Bernardino County West End Narcotic
Enforcement Team.

The near-weekly reports of major pot busts are unlikely to end anytime
soon, as detectives keen on finding large-scale marijuana cultivation
sites continue probing informants and investigating leads.

A common thread law-enforcement agencies have found as they start to
connect the dots is that gangs, many of them Asian, are behind the grow
houses. They are likely linked to a larger Asian crime ring that uses
the proceeds from pot sales to pay for other activities.

The list of those arrested in connection with the pot busts is riddled
with Asian surnames, and in the grow houses where no arrests take place,
detectives are finding operating schedules scribbled in Chinese characters.

"I can't say they're all connected," said Lt. Greg Garland of the San
Bernardino County Marijuana Eradication Team. "But for (San Bernardino
County), we have a couple of different groups, Asian-type groups,
working different indoor grows."

One suspect in an Apple Valley raid recently fled the country to China,
Garland said, and investigators have also found evidence of money
transfers made by other suspects to China.

Garland said some recent immigrants are exploited when they are asked to
run the grow houses in exchange for money and housing. Sometimes the
newcomers are asked to put their names on real estate deals without
understanding the criminal activities that will be based there, Garland

If the grow operations are linked to a larger crime syndicate with ties
abroad, then pot probably is just one aspect of their business.

"Gangs will have meth operations, cocaine smuggling operations, heroin
operations. The pot is just one part of it," said Jackie Long, special
agent supervisor for the California Department of Justice. "They are a
diversified company."

But the indoor operations aren't limited to Asian criminals.

"It runs the gamut. The whole thing is driven by profit and greed,"
Marinello said. "I don't think it has anything to do with nation of origin."
Big business

Make no mistake about it, pot is big business.

A majority of the nation's cannabis cultivation is in the Western
states. California leads the pack, producing more than a third of the
nation's total harvest, about $13.8 billion worth, according to a report
released last year by a marijuana public policy analyst.

The report by Jon Gettman, a marijuana reform activist, contends that
pot in the U.S., a $35 billion industry, tops corn, soybeans and hay,
the nation's largest-grossing legal cash crops.

On a case-by-case basis, it takes a substantial chunk of capital to even
start a grow operation. There's plenty of overhead, starting with buying
the house and equipment needed to set up the grow, and going all the way
down to paying the people who make occasional visits to fertilize the

"It takes some pretty big money to start up one of these," said Garland.

A mid-sized grow house holds about $5,000 worth of equipment, from
irrigation systems that run the hydroponic operation to charcoal filters
that eliminate the plants' odor. Some houses are dedicated entirely to
the cultivation of the profitable drug, with nary a chair or kitchen
towel in sight.

Sgt. Mike Arriaga of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Narcotics Unit
said the operations are set up by fairly sophisticated people.

"These are not kids. They're electricians, dry wallers, people who - for
lack of a better term - are entrepreneurs in the marijuana-growing
business," he said. "They have lights, water, timers ... to create a
season, fooling Mother Nature into believing it is growing season.
They're fooling the plants into believing it is time to go."

They may have savvy grow skills, but their neighbors are also becoming
more savvy in detecting grow houses. Garland said that as marijuana
busts have increased and become publicized, the number of tips to police
about possible grow houses also has grown. The frequency of the busts
has raised public awareness, helping residents spot grow-site clues that
would otherwise go unnoticed.

Still, it's not easy, said Marinello, who has been working in narcotics
for a decade. Those running the operations are discreet; they don't hold
loud parties or give their neighbors any other reasons to complain to
the authorities.

"The exterior of the house is usually maintained so the neighbors are
happy. The grass is green, the lawn is cut. They don't draw attention to
themselves," Marinello said. "This is a business, and they run it like a

They're also fooling the electric company.

To keep the lamps and timers going, most growers use an electrical
bypass device, often stealing thousands of dollars from the power company.

Such thefts pose their own hazards.

Haphazard wiring made one Chino grow house catch fire, exposing its
illegal operation to startled firefighters. At another Chino Hills grow
house, a full-sized bathroom became an electricity-theft hub, with
wayward wires and surge protectors dangling like ornaments from the
ceiling. Detectives said the setup was a fire waiting to happen.

"They're not stupid people. A lot of them are educated," Marinello said.
"But they're so into marijuana, it's like all they live for."
Taking shelter

Open the front door to a marijuana grow house, and if the smell doesn't
knock you off your feet, the plant's active ingredient, THC, will stick
to your skin and stop you in your tracks.

Police take it in stride, however, as what once was unusual and alarming
has become routine.

After a grow house is spotted, investigators arrive and, as if readying
to wash a sinkful of dishes, pull on latex gloves to weed through
evidence. To break up the monotony, they make pot jokes.

It's a very different scene than the one a few years ago, when indoor
grow houses were a relative rarity. Every once in awhile, police would
find someone growing weed illegally indoors, maybe a few plants in a
garage or basement. Most of their efforts were focused on dismantling
big outdoor operations like ones found in the hills of Big Bear Valley
and Lytle Creek.

But growers are finding it increasingly lucrative to head indoors, where
special lighting and easy-to-find hydroponic equipment can make plants
produce buds four or five times a year.

The place to do it seems to be suburbia, where police presence often is
minimal and residents are much more likely to push strollers than drugs.
It's an environment that's ideal for growers, as neighbors tend to keep
to themselves, and there's less chance the pot will get stolen, if it's
even discovered in the first place.

Growers also go to great lengths to mask their operations. Some have
installed lights near windows to fool passers-by, then put drywall
behind the window to separate the grow operation from the deceptive

The people behind one Apple Valley grow house built a faux wall near the
entryway so that when the door was opened, people outside couldn't see
the illegal activity inside.

When they are uncovered, grow operations can take most of a day to
dismantle. In cases where electricity is stolen, the homes that once
sheltered the green plants quickly become red-tagged and deemed

Depending on the agencies handling the investigations, the house can go
through either federal or state forfeiture. Forfeiture laws vary
nationwide; under California law, the homeowner must be convicted for
the house to be confiscated.

The people arrested in connection with the grow houses are rarely the
homeowners. Some are renters, and some are employees of the operation

"The clever ones, the real money guys, they hire people to take care of
their stuff," Marinello said.

But the surge in suburban grow houses does not mean an end to outdoor
operations, or that they are only limited to upscale communities.

Aside from the Lytle Creek bust earlier this month, which involved an
outdoor grow, five people were arrested on July 16 in Phelan after
authorities found a hydroponics operation with 250 plants in a bunker
under a mobile home.

Garland said outdoor marijuana fields are usually discovered in the
summer, when the marijuana planted in April begins to mature. The Lytle
Creek plants, worth between $6 million and $9 million, were mature and
ready for the harvest.

Cultivating outdoors creates a whole different batch of problems,
Garland said. He said in most outdoor grows, one or two people camp in
the remote areas to make sure things run smoothly. Sometimes they'll
kill the animals that eat the plants.

"They'll put down fertilizer, which gets into the water stream," Garland
said. "The biggest thing about the outdoor grows is they go into the
remote areas, the forests, and do lots and lots of damage."
War rages on

Meanwhile, state and federal agencies continue to fight what they admit
is a losing battle with pot producers.

Despite the effort to curb it, federal estimates show nationwide
marijuana production has increased tenfold over the past 25 years, from
2.2 million pounds in 1981 to 22 million pounds in 2006.

Long, the California Department of Justice agent supervisor, admits the
government is a long way from taming the problem. The government's
Campaign Against Marijuana Planting seized nearly 1.7 million plants in
2006, a record year. Long expects to break that record this year.

"It's not even close to being under control," he said. "It's out of

The numbers are ammunition for those who favor legalizing marijuana or
an overhaul of current drug policies.

The war on drugs isn't winnable, said Margaret Dooley, acting director
of the Southern California Drug Policy Alliance, who contends the
problem should be tackled with a public health approach that addresses
drug addiction.

"What we've had for many years is a drug war that does more harm than
good," Dooley said. "We spend so much on enforcement that addiction is
starved for funding."

The grow houses sprouting in neighborhoods not normally targeted by
police show that demand for pot is and will remain high, Dooley said.

"There should be some way to regulate and allow a legitimate
dispensary," she said. "I would say you can continue to go after these
grow houses, but they will change their strategy.

"It's a losing battle."

Staff writers Will Bigham and Megan Blaney contributed to this report.

Staff writer Wendy Leung can be reached by e-mail at, or by phone at (909) 483-9376.

Author: Inland Valley Daily Bulletin via UKCIA

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