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.

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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."

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