LaVina Collenberg thought she had ideal tenants for her tidy ranch-style home on the outskirts of this university town nestled in the redwoods of the North Coast. Then the 74-year-old widow received an urgent call last September from a neighbor, who said firefighters had descended on the house she had rented to a pleasant young man from Wisconsin.
Collenberg found her charred and sooty rental filled with grow lights and 3-foot-high marijuana plants. Seeds were germinating in the spa. Water from the growing operation had soaked through the carpeting and sub-flooring. Air vents had been cut into the new roof. A fan had fallen over, causing the fire.
"It was the first time I had been in a grow house," Collenberg said. "I had heard about them but never thought I had one. I was completely shocked."
Law enforcement officials estimate that as many as 1,000 of the 7,500 homes in this Humboldt County community are being used to cultivate marijuana, slashing into the housing stock, spreading building-safety problems and sowing neighborhood discord.
Indoor pot farms proliferated in recent years as California communities implemented Proposition 215, the statewide medical marijuana measure passed overwhelmingly a dozen years ago. A backlash over the effects and abuses of legally sanctioned marijuana growing has emerged in some of the most liberal parts of the state.
For example, in neighboring Mendocino County, a measure on Tuesday's election ballot seeks to repeal a local proposition passed eight years ago that decriminalized cultivation of as many as 25 pot plants.
The experience of Arcata, a bastion of cannabis culture, reveals the unintended consequences of the 1996 Compassionate Use Act, designed to provide relief to AIDS patients, cancer victims and others.
"If the average citizen . . . could see what I see, they probably would vote against it now," Police Chief Randy Mendosa said of Proposition 215. "We are seeing large-scale grow operations where greedy people are taking huge amounts of affordable housing and are using entire houses to grow marijuana. The going rate is $3,000 a pound [wholesale], and they are selling it and making a huge amount of money."
State officials say such problems exist throughout the state, including Southern California, but are particularly prevalent in northwestern counties that have relatively liberal limits on possession and cultivation of medical marijuana.
"People who clearly are in it for profit see it as a loophole and have flooded into these areas from across California and the U.S.," said Kent Shaw, assistant chief of the state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement. "What comes along with it is criminal elements who want to come and steal marijuana," sometimes through home invasion robberies.
Medical marijuana advocates say problems have been isolated, and they question the validity of attempts to link crime to a medicine. "Law enforcement sensationalizes a lot of the issues around growing and dispensaries," said Kris Hermes of Americans For Safe Access.
A doctor's recommendation is required for a medical marijuana patient to use, grow or acquire cannabis. Activists estimate there are more than 200,000 patients statewide.
In Arcata's leafy neighborhoods, residents and officials say the telltale signs of grow houses are evident: no full-time dwellers, blacked-out windows, scruffy yards, comings and goings at night. Then there's the skunk-like odor of marijuana and the whirring fans and electricity meters that generate thousand-dollar monthly power bills.
So many houses have been converted into pot farms that the availability of student rentals has been reduced and the community's aura of marijuana is turning off some prospective students, said Humboldt State University President Rollin Richmond. "My own sense is that people are abusing Prop. 215 to allow them to use marijuana . . . as recreational drugs," he said.
Arcata Mayor Mark Wheetley said marijuana growing has become a quality-of-life issue in the town of 17,000. "People from all camps say enough is enough," he said. "It is like this renegade Wild West mentality . . . I think people want to see a greater level of control and oversight."
Mark Sailors, 37, a medical marijuana patient and caregiver who moved here from Baltimore, said the community was overreacting. "They claim to support 215, and do not want you to have access to medicine," he said. "It sounds like the older people . . . are afraid of the younger."
The largest of the city's four pot dispensaries is the Humboldt Cooperative, known as THC, the abbreviation for the psychoactive chemical component in marijuana. Officials say that the nonprofit at a former auto dealership has 6,000 registered patients, 2,000 of whom are currently eligible to buy weed, and that it has paid roughly $500,000 in taxes over the last five years.
The dispensary grows marijuana in an on-site warehouse and buys additional pot from about 100 patients -- most from outside Arcata -- who do not need all they have grown under Proposition 215.
THC founder Dennis Turner said that many residential growing operations amount to "full-on crime" and that he would welcome more regulation for dispensaries, particularly to protect marijuana quality. "There are holes in this [Proposition 215] like a piece of Swiss cheese," he said.
The City Council recently issued a moratorium on new dispensaries downtown, on grounds that agriculture is not permitted there. New land-use guidelines also are in the works.
Officials say secretive marijuana operations in houses are their highest priority for increased regulation. They say they do not know how many people are violating the county's legal requirements limiting them to 100 square feet of leaf canopy and as many as 99 plants -- provisions that may be invalidated by a recent state appellate court decision.
Community development Director Larry Oetker said the city does not even know the locations of grow houses because growers tend not to get permits for electrical and plumbing work.
Oetker said they fear prosecution by federal authorities who do not recognize the state's medical marijuana law. "The concern is . . . the federal government will use city records to go bust the people."
Some growers have cut holes in floors so plants can go directly in the ground below, officials say. And many use jury-rigged wiring and extension cords that overload circuits.
Arcata Fire Protection District Chief John McFarland says that most local structural fires involve marijuana cultivation -- and that after a fire starts, it often spreads quickly through holes cut for ducts, pipes and wires.
Wade DeLashmutt, a carpenter who voted for Proposition 215, said he complained for many months about marijuana odors that hovered over his backyard after a man from Montana moved next door.
But the neighbor contended that it was medical marijuana. "He said, 'The voters of California said I could do this,' " DeLashmutt recalled.
In March, the county drug task force arrested the neighbor and another man after hundreds of marijuana plants, $12,000 and 27 pounds of processed pot were seized at that home and another in town.
Humboldt County Dist. Atty. Paul Gallegos said his office does not keep statistics on prosecutions for marijuana growing in Arcata. But Gallegos said he would prosecute any growers who posed a safety hazard, a public nuisance or environmental harm.
"If you converted a house to grow dandelions, petunias and roses, my concerns would be the same," he said.
LaVina Collenberg wishes she had known that her friendly young renters from Wisconsin intended to turn her house into a marijuana-growing cooperative. Her insurance paid $55,000 to repair the damage from the fire and modifications.
The former tenant did not respond to calls seeking comment. Dr Ken Miller, who issued the tenant's medical marijuana recommendation, said he did not recall the patient.
A petition campaign dubbed "Nip It in the Bud" is asking the City Council to bar marijuana growing and dispensing from residential and public gathering areas.
A neighborhood ban is overdue, said 82-year-old Wilma Johnston.
"We are becoming a community of rentals for marijuana plants instead of people," she said.