Indoor Marijuana Farming Becoming More Widespread

From California to Connecticut, marijuana plants are budding behind a veil of suburban normalcy.

Protected from neighbors, insects and weather, the indoor pot is flourishing among humidifiers, high-watt lamps and ventilation systems that filter and disperse the telling aroma.

In the last several months in the Los Angeles area, authorities raided several upscale homes and found marijuana "grows" valued at a total of about $50 million. Similar operations also were uncovered recently in Georgia and New Hampshire. In Connecticut in 2004, police seized 1,200 plants valued at $500,000 from swanky homes in Southington and Burlington.

Legalization advocates say there's a lot more indoor weed the cops don't know about, both in large grows and clusters of plants tucked into back rooms. And all signs, they say, show an upward trend in housing the nation's most popular illegal drug.

"It's a straight-up curve," said Allen St. Pierre, spokesman for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML.

Reasons for the move indoors, according to a variety of sources and published reports, include the lesser chance of getting caught or having plants stolen; tighter borders since Sept. 11, 2001, that are squeezing imports from Mexico and Canada; the ability to grow high-quality marijuana in a controlled environment; the reluctance of some smokers to buy pot from dealers; the wide array of seeds available, particularly from the Netherlands and Canada; and the ease and low cost of setting up an indoor greenhouse for personal use or sales.

Since 2001, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, annual seizures of indoor marijuana plants nationally increased from 236,000 to 401,000 last year. In Connecticut, state police spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance said police have seen more indoor pot operations, and the DEA's 2007 fact sheet for Connecticut says, "An increase in sophisticated indoor hydroponic marijuana growth sites have been revealed around the state in recent years."

Hydroponics involves growing plants without soil, either in nutrient-enriched water or inert material such as sand. It is the preferred method of many marijuana growers, and the materials are readily available at garden centers and online. Plug "hydroponics" or "indoor marijuana" into a computer search engine, and a dazzling array of products and how-to sites appears.

Canada-based BC Northern Lights, for example, sells hydroponically equipped "grow boxes" - self-contained appliances that include lights, ventilation systems and filters to control odor. In 2003, the company sold 108 units to New England residents, owner Tarren Wolfe wrote in an e-mail. Last year, it sold 202 units to people in this region. (Wolfe says her company does not sell its products as marijuana growers. But its name, Northern Lights, also is the name of a strain of marijuana.)

BC Northern Lights' "Bloom Box" was selling recently online for about $3,200, but an initial outlay of only $200 for essential lights and other equipment will produce a few high-quality plants, said Jorge Cervantes, who writes about marijuana cultivation for High Times magazine. Seeds are available through websites such as www.dutch-seeds.com. A packet of 15 Northern Lights No. 5 X Haze seeds sells for $182.98, while 10 Skunk Red Hair seeds go for $33.39, according to the website.

Indoor plants can be harvested every three months or so, and while average, seed-containing marijuana from Mexico sells for $150 to $200 an ounce in this area, seedless varieties that a knowledgeable person can grow indoors will fetch up to $500 an ounce. An indoor grower with little more than a back bedroom dedicated to marijuana can make $50,000 to $70,000 a year.

But anyone tempted to start their own plants should realize that possessing marijuana and its seeds is illegal in Connecticut, a first offense punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a $2,000 fine for more than 4 ounces. Smaller amounts can get you one year in prison and a $1,000 fine.

Large "grows" also can attract unwanted attention from serious criminals. Huge busts of indoor grows in the last year in California, New Hampshire and Florida were all linked to Vietnamese organized crime, according to the DEA.

"It's like a pot of gold sitting in those houses, and people are going to do whatever it takes to get their hands on it," a California state drug enforcement officer told the Los Angeles Times recently. "There's already been some takeover robberies of indoor grows, some that gets reported, some that does not."

Also, some people running large indoor marijuana operations have bypassed home electrical meters, attempting to hide the extra juice required for 1,000-watt metal halide lamps and other equipment. In some cases, those farms were exposed after electrical fires, said Agent Anthony Pettigrew, the DEA's New England spokesman.

That's how police say they uncovered suburban pot operations in Southington and Burlington in 2004. Police were summoned to the $440,000 Southington home after neighbors smelled smoke from an electrical fire. Inside, the scene was typical of the modern commercial suburban grow. The only furniture consisted of two mattresses on the floor. A forest of potted marijuana plants under grow lights, drip irrigation tubes and ventilation ducts occupied the rest of the space.

Smaller grows are much harder to find. They don't use a noticeably large amount of electricity and can be housed in spaces as small as a coat closet. Also, modern home growers - far better informed and equipped than most of their counterparts in the 1960s and '70s - can produce plants with high concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary intoxicant in marijuana and hashish, so they don't need a lot of room.

Also, although possessing marijuana seeds is illegal throughout the U.S., they're small and are shipped in nondescript packages, so most orders get through, according to legalization advocates.

But even small growers can get caught. It's not uncommon for police called to domestic fights or other crimes to find marijuana plants.

"Usually we get sent to a place on some other call," West Hartford Police Chief James Strillacci said.

He acknowledged that's probably only a small portion of what's growing behind shaded windows and locked doors.

"Whatever we know about," he said, "odds are there's a lot more we don't know about."