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Foreclosures, bad economy create fertile ground for marijuana ‘grow houses’

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Leila Navidi

Swat team members and Metro Narcotics police talk to a suspect during a bust of a marijuana grow house by the Metro Narcotics Unit near East Flamingo Road and South Pecos Road in Las Vegas Wednesday, November 10, 2010.

Marijuana Grow House Bust

Suspects and residents of the house stand outside the bust of a marijuana grow house by the Metro Narcotics Unit near East Flamingo Road and South Pecos Road in Las Vegas Wednesday, November 10, 2010. Launch slideshow »

Jackie Valley discusses area 'grow houses'

Lasvegassun.com reporter Jackie Valley talks about a recent increase in the number of 'grow houses' or homes where criminals cultivate millions of dollars of marijuana.

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.

Click to enlarge photo

Swat team members and Metro Narcotics police talk to suspects during a bust of a marijuana grow house by the Metro Narcotics Unit near East Flamingo Road and South Pecos Road in Las Vegas Wednesday, November 10, 2010.

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.”

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  1. It's a big game of Whack-A-Mole...
    & The stakes are high!!!

  2. "We're not interested in hurting anyone who's sick or needs medicine," Chavez said.

    Sounds like what the Friends of Sharron Angle would say.

  3. "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."

    Welcome to our police state.

  4. gee this is just nuts make it legal already get the criminals out of this game.

    look at the money we are spending 7000 per bust 100 homes thats 700000 a year on removal

    then the cops on the special unit at least 10 of them makeing 60k a yr another 600k pluse benifits

    we are wasting that much money when we could make it legal and get the taxes from this plus use those cops to catch real crime

    i know i know i say the same thing but it just needs to be done already

  5. We need to get out of the drug war - like most government programs it is a complete failure. It has high costs for taxpayers and high costs for civil rights as the drug war disproportionately impacts minorities and the poor. Laws can be abused by the government, especially civil asset forfeiture (police take your property and even if you committed no crime it can be very difficult to get your property back). The drug war is also fueling terrorism not just in Mexico but in Afghanistan as well.

    Government should have no power to tell people what they can and cannot put in their bodies - tobacco, marijuana, salty fries, sugary sodas or Happy Meals.

    Nevada should legalize marijuana, tax it and regulate its consumption just like cigs and alcohol. Driving under the influence of MJ will still be a crime.

    We'll save millions in tax dollars on enforcement and incarceration and make millions in tax revenue.

    Plus attract tourists. Then the LVCVA can advertise "High Expectations, Low Room Rates." Yes, I expect a commission for my work here.

  6. and yes, companies should be free to test their employees and maintain a drug free environment or ban smoking marijuana if they want (as a never-user, I'd prefer that, but my preferences should not be used to outlaw other peoples non-violent victimless preferences).

  7. "Why not just legalize pot and get it over with."

    Bob365 -- excellent point, made along with many others here, but technically this whole honeypot for law enforcement needs to be decriminalized. That means the laws repealed, not new laws made. Look at the history of how this gods' botanical gift to mankind and how it became illegal. Wikipedia has a good history on this -- you'll see the main culprit is Harry Anslinger, America's first drug czar.

    As Patrick_R has posted recently on a similar thread, federal law classes marijuana as more dangerous than morphine or meth -- that's how insane these laws can get.

    "If built in great numbers, motels will be used for nothing but illegal purposes." -- J. Edgar Hoover

  8. hsr: Did you not get the news that the government paid for solar plant in California (we chipped in $500 million in stimulus dollars) is being closed?

  9. This is why I now fight any and every ticket I get. The last was 'changing lanes without signaling', a $190 offense against the Citizens of North Las Vegas and another $30/month for the next 4 years, $1,440 for the insurance executives who NOW do a CREDIT CHECK to determine your car insurance policy premium. Anything for a buck. (It cost 3 mornings with da Judge but the officer didn't show.)

    We have a LEGAL INDUSTRY, not a System. It hands out Miss Manners tickets to pump money into bigger hiring budgets. I'm surprised I didn't get a warning for leaving the toilet lid up. In fact, a person may create suspicion these days if overheard to say he was "sitting on the pot" in the morning.

  10. Governments and Churches just need to get out of running citizen's lives---let citizens make their decisions, make their own destinies, as our Country's Forefathers intended and as God intended. The government has grown so gigantic, that everywhere it walks anymore, it tramples what is beneath it. It is time to decriminalize marijuana and tax its consumption. Declassify drugs, and only be concerned with purity, measure, and taxation of them. Let people decide risk for themselves, let them be responsible for themselves.

    It is a real incentive to learn to read and become literate so one can read warning labels or important information. If we stuck to the three R's in this country and let live, we would have a more evolved and balanced population of people. The older I get, the more I tend to believe that Americans are inhibited and often stunted due to their values and way of thinking. Other countries are beginning to pass us by because we cannot think outside the box, and the quality of American thinkers produced are limited. It was not always that way, but I see a direct correlation between the amount of government and church interference to output of invention. There is enough of a track record to compare over the last 150 years. So what is the next step? Regulate more and get less or regulate less to get more?

  11. ".....Anything for a buck. (It cost 3 mornings with da Judge but the officer didn't show.)....."

    SunJon -- your post made some excellent points. But I see you didn't consider what the judge's reaction would have been if YOU hadn't shown up even the first time. Sounds like that judge disregarded his oath, especially the part about you being treated equally.

    What you're experiencing is the police state America has become -- government at every level has become predatory on We the People, and it is actively on the hunt for us all. No matter how they explain it -- "for your safety" or "it's for the kids" -- funny how it all comes down to getting your money, no?

    "[The law] has placed the collective force in the service of those who wish to traffic, without risk, and without scruple, in the persons, the liberty, and the property of others; it has converted plunder into a right, that it may protect it, and lawful defense into a crime, that it may punish it." -- Frederic Bastiat, 1850 "The Law"