Indoor Marijuana Crop Part of Growing Trend

Times Staff Writer

Neighbors had no reason to suspect that the spacious, luxury home on South Walnut Avenue was any different from the other houses in the upscale area of San Dimas. But at the top of a steep, winding driveway, hidden behind a dense grove of eucalyptus trees, police discovered what they said was Los Angeles County's largest indoor marijuana plantation.

When drug agents raided the 5,000-square-foot home last month, they found a high-tech hydroponic hothouse, with 631 marijuana plants basking under 1,000-watt grow lights and soaking in nutrient-enriched solutions. In all, agents seized 1,212 pounds of marijuana--some of it already processed and packaged--with an estimated street value of $4.25 million.

Agents arrested Rollin Scott Forteville, owner of the house, and Jeff Jenkins. The two pleaded not guilty to felony charges of marijuana cultivation. Their trial in U.S. District Court is scheduled to begin July 5, said Mary McMenimen, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office.

"This is the first time we've run into anything like this," said Sheriff's Lt. R. David Dietrich, a member of the San Gabriel Valley Narcotics Enforcement Team. "We haven't (previously) found a case of someone taking a house of this size and value and using it to grow marijuana."

But drug agents at the state and federal level said police in Southern California should expect to encounter similar large-scale indoor marijuana farms with increasing regularity in the future.

Becoming Prevalent

"It's becoming very prevalent," said Charley Stowell, California marijuana coordinator for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. "They're using residences, they're using garages. A lot of them are actually tunneling underground in yards and basements."

The San Dimas seizure was a record indoor haul for Los Angeles County, but small compared to seizures elsewhere in the state. Earlier this month, agents confiscated a record 8,000 plants from a barn in the Northern California community of Loomis. Last year, the DEA confiscated about 3,500 plants growing in a barn in San Luis Obispo and more than 3,000 plants crammed into a modest tract house in Sacramento.

Authorities believe that pot growers are moving their business indoors to escape the prying eyes of the agents who use helicopters to spot illegal agriculture. Such airborne surveillance intensified in 1983, when the state attorney general's office launched its Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP).

At the program's outset, the DEA identified almost 900,000 plants growing statewide, of which more than 580,000 escaped eradication by authorities. By 1986, the number of plants grown had dropped to 242,000, with 87% of those destroyed before harvest, leaving less than 20,000 to make it to the illegal drug market.

Although agents have continued to eradicate between 85% and 88% of the marijuana grown statewide over the last two years, the total number of plants grown--and hence the number to avoid destruction--has increased. Last year, more than 43,000 plants were successfully harvested, according to the DEA.

Rebound in Price

Authorities cite the escalating price of high-grade sinsemilla, which has spiraled from $1,900 to $3,500 a pound in five years, as the prime reason for the rebound in marijuana growing. And as the marijuana trade has become more lucrative, indoor growing has become more prevalent, agents said.

Drug agents raided 270 indoor growing operations last year, up from 172 in 1987 and 115 in 1986. The average indoor operation discovered by the DEA has about 1,000 plants, as compared to 200 for the average outdoor garden, Stowell said.

"There's no question that they're going indoors," said Jack Beecham, special agent for the state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, who is in charge of CAMP. "There's just tremendous pressure being put on (growers) from the outside. There was really no reason to go inside five years ago. It was just rampant in (the northern) part of the state."

"There's no question that they're going indoors," said Jack Beecham, special agent for the state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, who is in charge of CAMP. "There's just tremendous pressure being put on (growers) from the outside. There was really no reason to go inside five years ago. It was just rampant in this part of the state."

After their sweeping success in combatting outdoor marijuana farms, CAMP agents are finding the going more difficult now that the battle has moved indoors.

"It changes the picture," Beecham said. "Obviously, you can't spot it from the air, so you have to go back to the traditional methods, using informants and doing investigations. It's slower and more cumbersome."

Besides helping to shield them from authorities, indoor cultivation offers numerous other advantages to marijuana growers. Their plants are protected from hazards such as wild animals and human predators. By controlling the amount and angle of artificial light, growers can simulate the changing seasons and harvest continuously throughout the year, agents said.

More Experimentation

Indoor growing also provides greater opportunities for botanical experimentation, such as cloning. Growers "breed" plants asexually to increase both yield and potency.

As a result, much of California's indoor-grown marijuana has a concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)--the intoxicating agent in the drug--nine times that of pot smuggled from Mexico. The increased potency translates to greater profits for growers and traffickers, who can get up to $3,500 a pound locally for high-grade marijuana. Some use the pot as barter for other drugs, Stowell said.

"Dope from here in California is showing up in Florida and South America to be traded for cocaine," Stowell said. "There, the sinsemilla from California will fetch up to $6,000 a pound on the street."

Although the potential for profit is much greater for indoor marijuana growers, so are the costs and the risks.

The equipment for a large-scale indoor-lighting and growing system can run more than $50,000. Electric and water bills can exceed $5,000 a month, reducing the grower's income and possibly raising the suspicions of local utility companies.

Outdoor growers often locate their plots on publicly owned land, such as national forests, to avoid being linked to the plot. But when an indoor operation is discovered, the owner or resident of the house involved has a hard row to hoe in trying to prove innocence.

"It's kind of hard to say you didn't know who that garden belonged to when it's in your bathroom or garage," Beecham said.

House Was Seized

And indoor growers who are arrested risk more than the loss of their freedom. Under a federal law enacted in 1985, property used in the production, transportation or trafficking of illegal drugs is subject to seizure by the U.S. government.

Although the law has been used most often to seize boats, planes and cars, in the San Dimas case it led to the seizure of Forteville's 5,000-square-foot house, valued at more than $1 million.

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