Nationwide demand for high-potency marijuana has turned Florida into a top producer of hydroponic weed, and hundreds of South Floridians are turning their homes into lucrative grow houses, according to local law enforcement.
The illegal drug nurseries are hidden everywhere from million-dollar homes to run-down apartments, putting unsuspecting neighbors in serious danger, police said. Some grow houses are discovered only after explosions or fires.
Last year, more marijuana grow houses were seized in Florida than in any other state, despite a drop in overall numbers, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. Florida law enforcement agencies raided 818 houses, followed by California's 791.
Not all agencies report their findings to the DEA.
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The heart of the industry is in South Florida, where police have burned more than 1,000 plants so far this year in undercover stings with the South Florida High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.
Now growers are learning high-tech tricks to hide their plants from undercover investigators.
"The bad guys are getting smarter, and we're not finding them all," said Capt. Joe Mendez, who oversees HIDTA's marijuana task force in South Florida.
Growers are rewiring homes to steal electricity from utility lines to avoid suspiciously high electric bills, police said. The indoor nurseries suck energy to run air conditioning units and 1,000-watt light bulbs, which help speed up plant cycles.
Tracking down individual growers has gotten harder, too, as many are using closed-circuit cameras to monitor their homes from afar. Police sometimes raid grow houses and find no one inside, Mendez said. Large-scale growers have moved to rural Palm Beach County and Miami-Dade to evade nosy neighbors and police surveillance.
"They've gotten really sophisticated," said Delray Beach police Sgt. Phil Dorfman.
But shoddy electric wiring and intense heat from lighs often turns the homes into ticking time bombs, said Dorfman, who works in the department's narcotics unit.
In February, a grow house exploded on a quiet street in unincorporated Broward County, west of Fort Lauderdale. Neighbors in the 2200 block of SW 43rd Way said they felt the explosion and compared the sound to a plane crash.
Debris flew onto nearby roofs and flames licked neighbors' yards, knocking out power for six hours. No one was inside and no one was injured. Firefighters found 10 marijuana plants in the house, and fire investigators said propane in the grow house set off the explosion.
Shannon Molohon, who lives a few doors down, said she had no idea what her neighbors were doing. She said she is still "enraged" that the homeowners put everyone is danger.
"It's traumatized the neighborhood," said Molohon, 50. "There's kids on bikes around here. People walk their dogs at night."
Molohon said a couple and three girls lived in the house. They've since left, and the home remains a pile of rubble surrounded by a chain-link fence.
The Broward Sheriff's Office filed an arrest warrant in connection with the case, but has made no arrests.
The huge profits made from hydroponic marijuana create a never ending battle for police, said Mendez, of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. Each pound has a street value of about $4,000 in South Florida, and each plant produces about three pounds a year, according to the task force.
The intense lights, nutrients and oxygen tanks used indoors make the hydroponic plants grow three times faster than those outside, with much higher levels of THC, the key psychoactive substance found in marijuana.
Law enforcement officials have pushed to toughen penalties for marijuana growers, and state legislators in 2008 passed the Marijuana Grow House Eradication Act. It it a second-degree felony to grow more than 24 plants, lowering the previous 300 minimum.
The law has slowed down grow house seizures, Mendez said, but he thinks growers have just gotten more careful.
Police rely on tips from neighbors, who sometimes don't know what to look for, said Hollywood Police Lt. Norris Redding.
"You can live in a neighborhood and not even know that there's a grow house next door," said Redding, who worked several years for the department's street-crime team.
Most grow houses, for example, have "Beware of Dog" signs, but no dogs, he said. The window blinds always are shut and the house gives off a distinct, skunk smell.
South Florida's climate plays a part in the area's large number of grow houses, Redding said. No one thinks twice about a house that runs air conditioning year round, which is needed to cool down grow houses that generate heat from high-wattage lights.
Most people think these homes are only found in poor neighborhoods, Redding said, but that's not true.
Police busted a grow house in March on a well-kept street in Boca Raton. Dana Carvello called police after two robbers invaded his house in the 1500 block of SW 16th Street and tied him up. When officers arrived, the robbers were gone, but they found an "elaborate" grow house in the garage.
They seized the 24 plants and Carvello, 34, was arrested on a charge of cultivating marijuana, according to a Boca Raton arrest report.
The property owners said they had no idea Carvello was growing marijuana.
In Boynton Beach, the owner of a townhouse in the Pelican Pointe subdivision said he was surprised to find out police had seized 40 plants in May from the home he rents out. Jesse Duncans, 26, was arrested May 25 in the home in the 500 block of SW First Street.
Owner Leon Feinstein said police are wasting time and money arresting marijuana growers. They should focus on violent criminals, he said.
"We're wasting money over and over again on this," said Feinstein, who lives in Michigan. "I think it should just be legalized."