December 9, 2007
By STEVEN KURUTZ
Marijuana growers have long faced a dilemma. If they grow pot outdoors, weather conditions are unpredictable, and plants can be spotted from the air or accidentally discovered. Yet if they set up an indoor operation in a sleepy town, their suspicious activity tends to draw attention. The new and counterintuitive solution of some growers in California is to move into a busy, upscale suburban neighborhood and establish a “marijuana mansion,” as the street-life magazine Don Diva recently termed it.
A home that costs a half-million dollars or more is essentially converted into a weed factory: rooms are packed with hydroponically grown plants; fans and air ducts are installed for moisture control and to remove the skunky odor; the electricity box is rewired to steal electricity from power lines. With precision light and temperature control, the growers, who don’t live in the houses but check in a few times a week, can harvest more (and more potent) pot.
According to Lt. Greg Garland of the sheriff’s department in San Bernardino County, where more than 50 pot houses have been raided this year, the growers favor newer communities in outlying suburbs because they get more space for the money, and residents pay scant attention to their neighbors. “In these communities, both the husband and wife work; they’re busy coming and going,” Garland says. “One man we spoke to lived next to a grower for a year and wasn’t even sure what color the guy’s car was.”
Curiously, the subprime mortgage fiasco helped make the phenomenon possible: many pot houses were purchased by first-time homeowners using interest-only loans, and with speculators buying houses to flip them, it wasn’t uncommon for a home to sit empty for months. Authorities have started to alert the public to the signs of a pot house, a telltale one being a dry lawn. But, ever adaptive, the growers are hiring gardeners — just like their suburban neighbors.