Pot Growers Retreat Inside, Under Lights in High-Tech Battle

Times Staff Writer

Years of airborne raids on California marijuana farms have prompted a technological tit-for-tat between growers and police, with planters increasingly turning to sophisticated hothouses and authorities responding with mechanical bloodhounds to sniff them out.

Among the devices a federal drug agent said are being tested are electronic sensors that can recognize the heat put off by an illicit greenhouse, identify marijuana pollen it may exude--and even detect the crop’s distinctive odor.

At the same time, growers who remain outdoors have begun trying to insulate themselves from prosecution by importing undocumented Mexican laborers to work their pot gardens. Federal agents recently uncovered the second such operation in as many years in the Cleveland National Forest near San Diego.

“We have caused so much pressure on the outdoor growers we’re forcing them indoors,” said Charles A. Stowell, U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency special agent and member of the multi-agency Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, or CAMP.


They also are unwittingly fostering a boom in the greenhouse industry, with specialty stores stocked with special “grow lights,” timers, drip irrigation systems and automatic fertilizer dispensers popping up across the state.

The October issue of High Times, a monthly magazine that caters to the drug culture, includes more than 30 ads targeted at indoor gardeners, offering such items as discount grow lamps and odor-absorption devices.

“Cops brag that they’re finding hillsides empty in Humboldt County,” said Tom Alexander of Corvallis, Ore., editor of Sinsemilla Tips, a how-to magazine for indoor gardeners. “But what they don’t say is that the growers have moved indoors down in San Francisco or L.A.--or Portland or Seattle.”

Meanwhile, CAMP is concluding its seventh annual series of helicopter raids against the state’s marijuana growers--a multimillion-dollar, albeit illegal, sector of the California economy. Indeed, authorities said California growers have been so hampered by raids that their harvest may now be rivaled nationally in volume by the crop in neighboring Oregon, which has increased as the California crop has shrunk.


As of Sept. 16, CAMP had seized more than 91,000 marijuana plants this year in the state. That is down more than 23% from the 118,756 plants taken through the same date in 1987. CAMP spokeswoman Kati Corsaut said the reduction can be attributed to the drought, better concealment and indoor growers.

California nonetheless remains a large pot producer, and by far the bulk of that crop still is grown outdoors--usually in parks or public forests, to let growers remain anonymous and avoid having their personal assets confiscated if the plantation is raided.

‘Emerald Triangle’

Outdoor dope growers also are diversifying beyond the traditional “emerald triangle” of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties on the rugged and rainy North Coast, Corsaut said. Santa Barbara County displaced Trinity this year as the county with the third-highest number of marijuana plants taken by CAMP, and Santa Cruz County is threatening to push Trinity into fifth place.

But CAMP also reported finding more and bigger indoor marijuana operations, including a Santa Barbara County greenhouse filled with 3,700 plants, and both they and others familiar with the illicit industry expect the trend to grow.

No one knows how much marijuana is raised indoors, but Alexander and others who favor decriminalization of the substance said the total may be as high as half of the country’s total domestic production. The Drug Enforcement Agency reported that 177 indoor marijuana growers were busted in California alone as of Aug. 31, the end of the most recent reporting period. That is a 34% increase over the same period last year, and a more than twice the number discovered in 1986.

Greenhouses Not New

Greenhouses are not new among marijuana cultivators, only more popular. And they are not the only way in which growers try to dodge authorities. Some have tried growing pot in pots, which are kept outdoors and either moved frequently or hidden in tree branches to frustrate raiders. Others have bred new plant strains that are smaller or produce leaves of unusual shapes or colors, making them harder to detect from the air.


“They are so high-tech,” said Sam Osborne, a narcotics officer in the San Francisco Police Department, “they are to the point where, if they can’t find a plant that grows well with the lights they use, they just breed a new strain of plant that does.”

Indoor gardens pose several problems for authorities. For one thing, unlike outdoor plantations, indoor gardens cannot easily be seen from aircraft. Being more difficult to see, they are more difficult to raid; a search warrant often is required. The ideal growing conditions in the climate-controlled, pest-free greenhouses also can produce as many as three full crops each year.

‘Equal or Better Quality’

“The original purpose (of cultivating indoors) was to get away from aerial police surveillance, but once indoors, they (growers) realized they could grow much more marijuana of equal or better quality,” Alexander said.

Increased volume might be debatable. But considering the advantages that do exist, it is not surprising so many growers in so many areas have moved inside, despite the considerable capital investment needed and higher operating cost.

Operations range in size from the 10 plants uprooted in an Oakdale, Calif., raid to the 3,000 plants shoe-horned into every bedroom, bathroom, hallway and closet of a suburban Sacramento tract home. Pot gardens have also turned up in a Costa Mesa basement and a San Francisco pottery shop, an Escondido warehouse and a Cottonwood, Calif., barn--even hidden across the street from the Ukiah, Calif., courthouse.

Across the Country

California is not unique. Marijuana greenhouses have been raided everywhere from Boston to Seattle. There is even a whole Montana farm family that pleaded guilty late last year to using profit from indoor marijuana crops to cover the losses from outdoor grain crops.


One thing most of the indoor operations share is a level of complexity that would befuddle Rube Goldberg and beguile a rocket scientist. Mature plants can be raised either traditionally, in earth-filled containers, or hydroponically, while suspended in a nutrient-rich water solution.

From the ceiling are hung high-intensity “grow lights” that glow with the ideal spectrum of light for healthy, fast-growing plants. The plants often are also automatically watered, fertilized and ventilated through a robotic system of timers, thermometers, pipes, vats and vents. Some operations even create an artificial atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide, on which plants thrive.

Largest Operation Exposed

The largest California operation exposed so far, in Orcutt in Santa Barbara County this spring, spread 3,700 plants among several custom-built structures. One resembled a regular house from the ground, but used camouflage netting for a roof--to let in some sunshine while frustrating spotter planes. Another was set up to rapidly sprout seedlings.

“I’ve been working narcotics for eight years, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” said one member of the joint San Luis Obispo-Santa Barbara counties task force that raided the plantation. An undercover agent, he asked not to be identified by name.

“There were rows upon rows upon rows upon rows of (seedlings). Then, above them, he had these grow lights on tracks, pulled by chains that made them move continually, like the sun. He was actually simulating sunrises and sunsets. It was amazing.”

Sophisticated Methods

Such sophisticated operations include cloning rooms, where potent seedlings are asexually reproduced; vegetative rooms, where lights simulate artificially lengthy days to swiftly push seedlings to maturity, and flowering rooms, where the potent buds are coaxed out of the plants by reducing the amount of light.

“You can have a harvest every three to four weeks, if you plan it right,” Alexander said.

All that electronic gadgetry is essential to a big-time indoor grower--and useful to police. To maximize profits and avoid potentially incriminating paper work with the power company, growers sometimes illegally tap into utility lines and bootleg, or steal, electricity. Such thefts can be pinpointed by the power company, which alerts police.

Other gardens are compromised in other ways. The Sacramento tract house and an in-home Boston set-up, for example, both were found by police investigating burglaries. In both cases, teen-agers had broken in to grab free samples.

New Ways to Elude Detection

Several times, police in Northern California have uncovered pot greenhouses while searching buildings for other drug activities, such as a methamphetamine lab, cocaine warehouse or PCP factory.

But when one grower is detected, another seeks new ways to elude detection. Osborne said he has seen growers use sound-shielded diesel generators to avoid detection by the electric company--and also filter and reuse irrigation water to evade the water company.

Merchants who manufacture and sell the equipment used by indoor growers are eager to distance themselves from the marijuana trade. Some make it a point to include a free tomato plant with every grow light they sell. Others stress the value of hydroponics to orchid growers and other ornamental horticulturists.

“That (orchid growing) is a big part of our business, and we don’t want it tainted by what some others may do” with the technique, said Peter Wardenburg of Applied Hydroponics in San Rafael, Calif.

“On the other hand,” he added, “we don’t interrogate every customer that comes in.”