Friday, Nov. 12, 2010 | 2 a.m.
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Scores of empty houses and rentals in Las Vegas — many of them in upscale neighborhoods — have become incubators, literally, for crime.
The stucco walls and tightly drawn shades hide elaborate systems of special lights, fans, sprinklers and timers, all carefully arranged to cultivate millions of dollars worth of marijuana.
Last year, Metro Police raided 108 homes, seizing 12,466 plants and about $70,000 in cash. This year police have confiscated 10,311 plants and more than $90,000 from 112 “grow houses” — more than double the number of homes raided in 2007.
And slowly, marijuana growers are moving into commercial and industrial facilities. In September, for instance, police seized about 90 plants in a raid at a large warehouse that neighboring tenants thought was a bakery.
The increase may be attributed to Nevada’s record-high unemployment and foreclosure rates, which have compelled some financially desperate absentee owners and investors to rent without conducting sufficient background checks, Metro Lt. Laz Chavez said.
The result: Homes have been unwittingly rented to the pot growers or, in some cases, criminals simply squat in abandoned homes.
Also prompting an uptick in grow houses, Chavez said, is tighter security at the U.S.-Mexico border — “you can’t get marijuana across the border as easily as you used to” — along with potentially huge profits from the hydroponically grown crops.
Hydroponic marijuana can contain four times the amount of THC — the substance that creates the “high” users experience — as traditionally grown plants, Chavez said. And that makes it more valuable.
“Obviously, hydroponic weed is much more expensive than outdoor ditch weed,” Chavez said.
A pound sells on the street for $1,400 to $2,800, depending on its potency, and a single grow house can easily produce 400 to 500 pounds of marijuana a year, worth up to a million dollars or more, Chavez said.
It’s a high-stakes business that can lead to other crimes, including robberies and killings. Metro reported eight homicides last year connected to competing criminal cells that operate grow houses — including one killing at a grow house.
Police also seized 103 guns from grow houses last year and 148 so far this year, Chavez said.
North Las Vegas Police have dismantled five grow houses this year, while Henderson Police have busted 25 operations.
Many pot growers prefer newer homes in nicer neighborhoods because they believe they are less likely to be robbed and because the homes tend to be larger, Chavez said, adding residents in such neighborhoods tend to keep to themselves and aren’t nosy about their neighbors.
Sheriff Doug Gillespie last year created a special team, Squad 6, to investigate in depth grow houses, and police are hoping for assistance from neighbors who have the biggest stake in seeing the operations broken up.
At Metro’s community forums, Chavez said, officers talk about the signs of grow operations: covered windows, condensation on windows, excessive power consumption and use of air conditioning, overgrown yards, smells coming from the house, continuously running fans, a lack of normal day-to-day activity and warped blinds.
Most grow houses are not occupied, with the growers stopping by on occasion to check on the operation. “These houses are very automated. Once you set up your grows, you can set up a timer for the lights to come on, the water,” Chavez said.
Authorities also work with NV Energy’s Revenue Protection Team, which deals with power-theft cases that frequently occur when grow house operators finagle power meters.
Growing marijuana indoors can be dangerous, from electrical fires to leaking chemicals, fertilizers and mold that can cause the homes to be condemned.
Police departments — funded by taxpayers money — are responsible for removing the plants, chemicals and light systems. That can cost upward of $10,000 for a larger home, with an average bill of $7,000 to $8,000, Chavez said.
“The district attorney’s office will add these fees to the suspect’s fine, but very few, if any, ever pay their fines,” he said.
To help tackle the problem, law enforcement officials want the state Legislature to reinstate a marijuana cultivating law with stiffer penalties and higher bails for large-scale growers.
Under current law, suspects arrested in connection with grow houses are charged with felony possession of marijuana with intent to sell, which can draw a bail of $3,000 — not much in comparison to the money generated by the illegal business.
The law was repealed four years ago because it failed to clearly distinguish between people cultivating hundreds of plants and those growing up to three mature and four immature plants for medical purposes, as allowed by Nevada law with the proper permit.
Just on Wednesday night, Metro narcotics officers raided a home in an older Las Vegas neighborhood where they confiscated about 40 marijuana plants. Unlike most busts, this house was occupied by people who claimed that they were growing the pot legally for medicinal purposes — but far more than is permitted.
The district attorney’s office and the courts will have to sort out that raid.
“We’re not interested in hurting anyone who’s sick or needs medicine,” Chavez said. “We want to be able to keep these criminal cells out of our communities.”