Oakland's Grow House Hazards 

The city has been blocked from permitting large pot farms, but small, illegal grows are sparking fires and posing threats to public health and safety.


There's an old saying among stoners: "Nobody has ever died from an overdose of smoking pot." But the way things are going in Oakland, it's just a matter of time before someone dies from growing it. And there'll be hell to pay if it's a firefighter.

That reality became harshly apparent last week in West Oakland at a hulking warehouse on Chestnut Street, near I-580. The air was filled with the stench of burnt chemicals, fiberglass, and wood, and there was the unmistakable smell of three hundred to five hundred pot plants that had gone up in smoke that morning. It took eighteen firefighters to get the March 2 conflagration under control.

Later, after the firefighters had extinguished the blaze and gone back to their firehouses, an Oakland police officer watched a lone fire inspector pick through piles of burned-up junk, grow lights, insulation, and the wood used to barricade the front door. The mess had grown soggy on the curb next to a fetid motor home and dog and human excrement. Inside the farm it was pitch-black, except for charred lighting equipment.

It wasn't clear what started the fire, and the building's landlord wouldn't talk to this reporter — perhaps because of what else was inside the warehouse. A local tow truck driver on scene said he goes to the building every Wednesday for police auctions of cars towed in the city. Next door to the illegal pot farm, twenty cars sat in the dark, apparently waiting to be auctioned off. Oakland's illegal pot farming is so rampant that it has infected nearly every corner of the city.

It's also at least the second pot farm fire in Oakland this year. At this rate, 2011 might be busier than last year for Oakland firefighters. The department logged seven pot farm fires in homes and apartments in 2010 — roughly double the average for 2008 and 2009. Thankfully, no one has gotten physically injured in a pot farm fire. At least not yet.

But that's not to say that the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unregulated small- and medium-size grows haven't harmed anyone, because they have. Although 2010 stats are not yet available, Oakland police report that for the years 2008 and 2009 combined, there were eight robberies, seven burglaries, and two homicides related to cannabis cultivation. And that doesn't include all the crimes involving grows in which no one wants to talk to the cops, let alone fill out a police report.

The public health and safety issues don't stop there. The pot that makes it to market from these unregulated grows is sometimes contaminated with pesticides, molds, and fungi, according to local medical cannabis lab Steep Hill. The lab routinely tests pot coming into Harborside Health Center, the biggest dispensary in the West, and about 5 percent of the weed has tested positive for unacceptable levels of bacteria under federal health guidelines.

Landlords also have learned the hard way that growers destroy property, leaving behind gutted homes with holes in the floors and ceilings and mold damage on the walls. Unsafe, jerry-rigged wiring often is to blame for fires. Oakland Fire Battalion Chief Adrian Sheppard has been to so many pot farm fires in his career, he said: "Dear Lord, I couldn't even give a number on that. It's substantial."

Fire officials and weed brokers also say the number of indoor farms — which can range from a single 1,000-watt light in a closet in an Oakland apartment to 150 lights in a warehouse in the flats — is astounding. Oakland's four medical cannabis dispensaries sold some $28 million of pot in 2009, representing roughly 6,000 pounds of marijuana, which could occupy roughly 45,000 square feet of cultivation space. And that doesn't account for all the pot sold on the black market in Oakland.

Of course, not all indoor farms are dangerous; some growers take great care to be safe. But the explosive growth of small, illegal, and extremely hazardous grow houses was one of the driving forces behind the Oakland City Council's decision last summer to permit four industrial-size pot farms. City officials reasoned that bringing the grows out of the shadows and consolidating them into large, legal facilities, and then taxing and regulating them, would greatly limit fires and other hazards.

The council, however, has endured intense blowback over its plan. City Attorney John Russo, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley, and US Attorney Melinda Haag all concluded that the council's proposal was illegal. Russo has refused to represent the council as it tries to hammer out a new plan.

But lost in all the intense media coverage of Oakland's controversial pot farm ordinance is this undeniable fact: The current system of small- and medium-size grows is just as illegal as the proposal for large pot farms, maybe even more so, and yet Russo, O'Malley, and Haag seem to have nothing to say about that. Worse, the current system is a powder keg waiting to explode.

And while the Oakland council awaits word from new lawyers on a way forward, the problem continues to grow.

The rapid rise of indoor marijuana farms can be traced to the 1980s, when the Reagan administration launched the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, or CAMP. The program sent government-funded helicopters and cops to backwoods farms in the Emerald Triangle, the famed Northern California pot-growing region that includes Humboldt and Mendocino counties. The yearly CAMP raids helped push growers indoors, oftentimes into sheds or underground. Diesel generators sometimes power the indoor grows there to create so-called Diesel Dope, as Humboldt blogger Kym Kemp calls it.

The growth of non-soil-based growing mediums — called "hydroponics" — also enabled indoor pot-growing to surge. "Hydroponics is just a more efficient way to do it," said Richard Lee, a cannabis historian and founder of Oaksterdam University in Oakland. But what made indoor growing really take off, Lee said, "was mostly that people figured out you could use street lights. They figured out you could buy these 400- to 1,000-watt high-pressure sodium and metal halide lights, bring them indoors, and plants would grow real well with them."

The high-intensity lighting and hydroponics also led to increasingly strong strains of pot, which, by the Nineties, would regularly be called "chronic." The potent weed fetched as high as $6,000 a pound.

Indoor pot got another huge boost in 1996 when California voters passed Proposition 215, which gave medical marijuana users with a doctor's note and their "caregivers" a defense in court against state marijuana laws. That was followed by state Senate Bill 420 in 2004, which further legitimized medical cannabis. In 2008, the burgeoning industry prompted then-Attorney General Jerry Brown to develop guidelines. Brown issued a memo requiring dispensaries to operate as nonprofits and limited personal medical marijuana possession to roughly eight ounces and six mature plants.

But, theoretically, a grower that was a member of a collective/dispensary could grow thousands of plants for hundreds of patients. And many would try.

Oakland, meanwhile, had become a city very friendly to those who wanted to grow and sell. In 1998, the city declared a state of emergency due to the lack of medical marijuana for its chronically ill residents, who often turned to the black market. That year the council also provoked federal authorities with a city-sanctioned pot distribution program called the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative. It closed under the threat of a raid.

Still, pot clubs and grow houses began to sprout. Oaksterdam, a collection of pot clubs in the city's Uptown district, became a media sensation. The growth continued in 2004 when Oakland voters passed Measure Z, which instructed Oakland police to make "private adult cannabis use, distribution, sale, cultivation and possession" its lowest enforcement priority.

But the city also decided that the number of dispensaries had gotten out of control and chose to allow just four of them. The other clubs closed down. Looking back, it was a smart move; the city's regulatory scheme became a smash hit. Dispensary sales jumped 40 percent from 2008 to 2009 to $28 million and were an estimated $32 million in 2010. Meanwhile, in 2009, 80 percent of voters passed Measure F, which taxed clubs and clearly legitimized their presence in the city. A year later, Oakland voters approved another tax increase on medical cannabis, and pot produced about $1 million in tax revenues last year for the city.

But until 2010, Oakland had yet to address the growing operations, which were becoming increasingly troublesome. "While Oakland, and for that matter the state, has a method for dispensing medical cannabis, there is no established structure for its production, growth, and cultivation," Oakland city staff noted in a report to the council last June. "This, combined with the city of Oakland's low-priority enforcement policy, has made it difficult for OPD to enforce within the structure of dispensary collectives."

So while the state had approved medical pot and the city helped spur an industry, no one tackled the issue of where all the weed was coming from. According to Rick Pfrommer, buyer for Harborside, a lot of pot is grown in Oakland. "A whole lot," Pfrommer said. "From small growers to warehouses, Oakland produces thousands of pounds a year. The largest grow I've seen had 150 lights."

City staff, meanwhile, has reports of farms "throughout Oakland's industrial areas ranging from 1,500 square feet to 25,000 square feet cultivating for collectives throughout the Northern California region."

Harborside grower John, who didn't want his last name used for this story, has a reputation for managing a safe operation. He told the Express that he is one of hundreds of local growers. The Marin County native said he had bounced around from job to job before some friends convinced him he could safely and responsibly grow medical pot. "If I could look down from the top of the hills on the East Bay with X-ray vision," he said, "I'd expect to see a constellation of farms covering the area with Oakland and Berkeley pretty well covered."

In his East Bay residence, John has a six-light operation — growers measure the size of their grows in lights, not square footage. His high pressure sodium lights draw 6,000 watts to feed his growing crop of Strawberry Cough and Sour Kush. John is proud of his "Clean Green" certificate from Steep Hill labs, meaning he uses soil and organic nutrients and no synthetic fertilizers.

John's a star grower at Harborside, but his business isn't as lucrative as one might think. His operation is break-even at best, he said. For starters, he's not stealing electricity like a significant number of other farmers do. He pays $1,500 to $2,000 a month in electricity bills, which cuts into his profits. "A lot of people are jumping the power box," he said. "People know an electrician that can do it for them. I thought about it, but it's stupid. It's a felony."

"Jumping the power box" is when a grower rewires the building around the PG&E meter so that he can use as much power as he wants free of charge. It's dangerous, and illegal. In fact, somebody burned down a house in his neighborhood, John said. "A lot of people are doing that," he said about starting illegal grows. "They only have enough money to plug a few lights in. They have paper walls and no electrician doing an official job."

John says growers during the Great Recession started to come from all walks of life — from former business people to gangbangers and old hippies and their offspring taking over the family business. Many are amateurs trying to get in on a new bubble in the wake of the real estate bust. "It's mostly a money grab," he said. "I'd say a lot of people hit by the recession have tried to jump into this thing. A lot of them have tried and failed."

The rash of new growers also has put pricing and quality pressure on existing ones, including John. Prices are down to roughly $3,000 per pound for top-shelf weed, a far cry from the glory days.

But that's also one of the reasons why John and others believe full legalization — which would crash the price and remove the incentive to home grow — is the only real solution to Oakland's problems. After all, Oakland home brewers aren't burning down their apartments attempting to make easy money off beer and whiskey.

"People are trying to get warehouses, nice houses in the Oakland hills with a basement, sheds in Fruitvale, wherever they can," John said of pot growers. "One guy had a huge place in the El Cerrito hills and had converted the whole thing. Very few are trying to make it a legitimate business. Little gangbangers are trying to turn these houses into grows, they tape up all the windows, fill them with plants and pit bulls, and they blow up."

Oakland Fire Battalion Chief Sheppard isn't normally the first person into a building consumed with fire, but he was on the morning of Saturday, January 29. It was a pot farm in East Oakland.

When responding to a blaze, a firefighter's first priority is rescue. So when he enters what is usually a smoke-spewing, pitch-black room, he has a mental map in his head of how a typical residence or warehouse is laid out. Risk typically increases if the fire is at night. Once a fighter has established that it's a "working fire," and has gotten occupants out, a team works to confine the fire to its area of origin, extinguish it, and perform salvage and overhaul.

But pot farm blazes complicate a firefighter's job immensely. Growers often remove or add walls inside a home, or they wall off and barricade a section of a warehouse. As a result, a firefighter's standard training and mental map become worthless. Not only could the building have dead ends and booby traps, but the grower also probably has altered the electrical system. When the fire department shuts off the power to the house, the power may not actually be off.

"The building is consumed with fire and smoke and there's tons of hazards," Sheppard said. "The greater threat comes from the jerry-rigging of electrical components. You've got batteries. You've got generators, illegal electricity being boosted from other houses and facilities. We think we've turned off the electricity, and when we start deconstructing an area of the building we come across wires that are still electrically charged."

Modifications to the house also can thwart a firefighter's ability to properly ventilate a fire, Sheppard said. Heavily reinforced doors — a hallmark of grows — make it difficult to get inside. Sheppard has seen portions of a home's floor cut out so that the grower can drop a bathtub in place. The bathtub, filled with water, then serves as a hydroponics system with water lines strung throughout the residence — "meaning you've got hot wires and pools of water," Sheppard said.

It turned out that the January 29 fire was caused by an unattended cigarette. In the apartment at 1938 104th Avenue, firefighters also found a loaded gun, which is typical. "Now you've got ammo inside a fire," Sheppard noted. Inside, the grower also had a pit bull with a fresh litter of puppies. Oakland Animal Services ended up euthanizing the pit and the puppies, in part because of smoke inhalation.

When firefighters encounter a grow they call the police. The owner of this particular farm had been in and out of a correctional facility, Sheppard said. But technically, the grower had fewer plants than the city's legal limit. The presence of a gun and the felony jumping of the power might be cause for complaint, but Sheppard didn't know if police had charged him. Police did not respond to a request for information about the incident.

For the fire department, though, it was a relatively minor incident compared with some grows Sheppard has seen in the Oakland hills, where seclusion is an asset. "It's more expensive up there, there's less traffic, mostly people keep to themselves," Sheppard said. Growers in the hills will convert entire two-story homes, adding ventilation and battery units. They'll build boxes around exterior windows to create the illusion of a normal room inside.

The fire department takes pains to avoid talking politics, but Deputy Chief James Williams said: "The reason that building and fire codes exist is to prevent fires from occurring, and if there are people violating the building codes and fire codes, it may contribute to the ignition and growth of fires. Our main goal and our number one priority is to prevent fires and emergencies from occurring, and the best way to ensure that is to make sure people have properly functioning smoke detectors in homes and are not participating in activity that is illegal and that is not in line with applicable building and fire codes."

Oakland has laws that regulate things like altering the electrical wiring in a home, making structural changes, using residential property for commercial activity, and handling hazardous materials like pesticides and fertilizers. No medical marijuana law supersedes those regulations. Yet code enforcement is not exactly Oakland's strong suit, and the city lacks funds for any new campaign. Still, finding the money to merely enforce existing city codes could significantly reduce the risk to public safety from pot farming.

In July 2010, the Oakland City Council went searching for that money. It approved a plan to permit, tax, and regulate up to four large-scale farms with no cap on size. The effort was expected to raise millions of dollars in annual tax revenue for the struggling city. The new, legitimate supply of pot would have theoretically reduced the price, thereby forcing many illegal home growers out of work. The proposal also would have generated enough funds so that city inspectors would have the resources to shut down dangerous grows.

Since then, however, City Attorney Russo, DA O'Malley, and US Attorney Haag have concluded that Oakland's plan would have violated state law. On February 1, Haag made it clear in a letter to Russo that federal authorities could come after commercial-scale pot producers, whether they held permits or not. The federal government could also seize farm properties as part of vigorous enforcement against "unlawful manufacturing and distribution activity involving marijuana, even if such activities are permitted under state law," Haag wrote.

Law enforcement's chief concern typically has been about "diversion." That is, all that Oakland pot probably wouldn't stay medical for long. They worried that the large farms would end up supplying the local black market and shipping to states that have yet to legalize cannabis for medical needs.

But what law enforcement appears to be ignoring is that small, illegal growers in Oakland are already selling pot on the black market. The council's plan also would have finally put some of those growers out of business. "I know people that have shipped pounds out to New York, Miami, and Atlanta because they couldn't sell it around here," John said.

In Mendocino County, officials have apparently figured out a way to regulate growers without running afoul of the feds. Last year, county supervisors quietly rolled out a system to permit medical marijuana grows of significant size. All grows are under 99 plants, and growers must pay $1,500 to apply for a permit and pass a background check with the local sheriff's department.

Permitted growers must then submit to a $500 farm inspection with a third-party certifier — like a smog check — and buy $50 zip ties for each plant from the city. The zip-tie system discourages diversion, while permit, inspection, and zip-tie fees fund the program.

At a medical cannabis conference in Berkeley in January, Mendocino County Supervisor John McCowen said that he received three calls from the Drug Enforcement Administration about the county's program, and after the DEA officials reviewed it, they went away.

The key difference between Mendocino and Oakland seems to be the scale of permitted farming and the amount of publicity around it. Colorado and Arizona are also setting up state-permitted grows, but with much less fanfare. By contrast, Oakland's mega-pot farms, which would be the first in the state, fed media hype and drew a huge target on the city's back.

Last month, Russo announced that his office would no longer help the council craft a viable ordinance. The move came two months after the council had stopped the permit process for the large pot farms and abandoned the law it passed last July. The city council is now paying an outside law firm, Meyers Nave, to help it rewrite the city's ordinance. A report is due out this month.

In late January, Councilwoman Desley Brooks submitted a rough proposal for a new law that attempts to address some of the legal issues raised by Russo, O'Malley, and Haag. One of their primary concerns is that state law requires the grower, the dispensary, and the patient to belong to the same collective. And the main reason the law that the council approved last July was likely illegal was that it allowed the large farms to sell to more than one collective. It's also one of the key reasons why some small farms currently in operation in Oakland are illegal, too.

Brooks' proposal attempts to solve the problem by requiring that each large farm also has a dispensary and by forcing growers to only provide cannabis for their dispensary's patients — and no one else. However, her plan also appears to have two problems. First, it would allow grows of up to 50,000 square feet, which is more than the total amount of space needed by all of the city's current dispensaries. And second, it would be difficult under her plan to determine how big a grow should be if the dispensary has yet to open and doesn't have any patients.

Brooks declined to comment on the specifics of her proposal and said that she submitted it merely as a placeholder for further discussion. Jason Overman, spokesman for Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, who co-authored last year's ordinance, said, "Kaplan is open to further discussing size and scope. ... We're not committed to a particular figure. The square-footage element and the scalability of farms with dispensaries will be something that I expect Meyers Nave will likely comment on when they produce general recommendations later this month. It's fair to say the council is open to amending that number."

The issue may also be dealt with more swiftly at the state level, Overman noted. Two bills to regulate pot production were introduced last month in Sacramento by Senators Lou Correa and Ron Calderon of Southern California.

But Robert Raich, a local cannabis lawyer who helped take a medical cannabis case to the US Supreme Court, believes Oakland should regulate its existing small- and medium-size growers before turning to large ones. "Focusing all its attention on those huge farms was a mistake," he said. The city, he added, should pursue a program like Mendocino, with third-party inspections on any farm bigger than 150 square feet. "Gardeners in Oakland want to comply with reasonable rules and are happy to pay taxes, they just don't have a way to legitimize themselves."

But does the city have the money to launch such a program, and force the small hazardous grow houses out of business? Mayor Jean Quan and the council are currently grappling with a projected $46 million deficit next year. In addition, the state Legislature may approve Governor Jerry Brown's plan to kill redevelopment agencies soon, a move that would further devastate Oakland's finances.

And without some viable plan, the bad actors in Oakland's underground pot-growing scene continue to spark fires throughout the city. John said some of the grows he's seen are dungeons. "You got mold on all the walls, pest infestations, buds with rot inside them, rotting leaves and electrical wires through puddles of water," he said. "That sort of thing is obviously some amateur-hour shit that I'd rather see taken away. A lot of pot on the shelf is the farthest thing from medical that you can possibly imagine.

"I think the discussion is going to be ongoing and volatile, and when the dust settles, I hope people come up with a rational answer to this whole mess," he continued. "And I hope they do it in the interest of the public good."

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