Police in San Jose say illegal grow houses are becoming an increasing problem – one they’re not fully equipped to handle as their resources shrink and other issues take priority over weed.
In March, the body of a 26-year-old man was found in a grow house in the Coyote Creek neighborhood. He had been shot to death. Police haven’t said whether the murder is linked to the grow, but they say it’s just one example of rising trouble.
Two recent incidents highlight another common danger of illicit indoor cultivation: electrical fires. These and other problems are becoming increasingly common in the Bay Area, police say.
“I’m comfortable saying that there are over 100 of these houses, and the majority are in the City of San Jose,” said police Sgt. John Spagnola. “We have tips right now that we just haven’t had time to deal with yet. We could constantly be busting them.”
San Jose officials have no reliable means of tracking the number of grow houses in the city, in part because budget cuts forced the police department to scrap its Narcotics Covert Investigations unit two years ago. Spagnola could say only that he gets more neighborhood complaints now than he did over the past three years.
California voters adopted medical marijuana in 1996 when they passed the Compassionate Use Act. Seven years later, the legislature set up the skeleton of the state’s MMJ system.
But medical weed has always been largely unregulated in California. Most rules have been left to local officials, and marijuana advocates have fiercely contested many attempts to impose such restrictions.
The lack of regulation has encouraged a boom in illegal home grows. California now produces the vast majority of America’s pot, much of it grown by groups using converted homes in quiet suburban neighborhoods.
These homeowners typically jury-rig electrical systems to bypass meters. That way their suspicious power usage will go undetected and they won’t have to pay for it.
This creates one of the greatest risks of mass home cultivation: fire. Indoor grows also frequently use pesticides and other chemicals that can pose a danger to firefighters, police, and other first responders.
“It’s basically a hazmat scene because it’s a nursery with all these pesticides,” said Capt. Cleo Doss of the San Jose Fire Department. “But a bigger issue is the electricity. It’s an invisible killer. So if you make a wrong move, it can become very dangerous quickly.”