Grow houses in Columbia risk detection as well as housing damage

When the police department has access to utility bills, marijuana growth operations are a big risk for homeowners.
Heather Finn / Graphic Designer

Cultivating cannabis requires a lot of time and money. Between 1,000-watt horticulture bulbs, irrigating drip-systems, charcoal filters and electricity bills, growers can spend thousands of dollars a month. The criminal activities involved with a marijuana grow could all be happening undetected next door, but a steep financial commitment and unforeseen property damages have a real effect on growers and property owners.

According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, marijuana grows can cause more than $40,000 in damage due to mold, bad wiring and gas leaks. Cannabis sativa plants’ need for constant sunlight, water, warmth and nutrients can result in a living situation that is not only uncomfortable, but potentially uninhabitable, as well.

The increased reliance on electricity is one of the most expensive components of marijuana grows. Canada has one of the highest rates of growing operations, and according to the Ottawa Police Service, the main electrical system of a marijuana grow is often damaged by surges. Fire hazards, such as exposed live wires and overheated electrical ballasts, are also common.

In addition to requiring extra electricity, special horticulture lamps create an incredible amount of heat. According to How Stuff Works, many marijuana grow setups without proper ventilation and air conditioning can experience nighttime temperatures of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Marijuana plants will grow at temperatures between 70 and 80 degrees, but thrive at 95 degrees. Planters and pots are often elevated to keep root systems away from the cooling influence of floors.

The high levels of humidity in grow houses may result in warped wood, including staircases, handrails, floor finishes, roof joists and wood studs in the walls, according to the Ottawa Police Service. High levels of condensation can cause wood frames around windows and doors to rot as well as promote mold growth inside house walls. These molds can trigger respiratory conditions or allergies, as well as causing irreparable damage to the house.

Despite these risks to health and home, Eapen Thampy, executive director of Americans for Forfeiture Reform, said marijuana grows that are compliant with building codes don’t pose a threat to homeowners or neighbors.

“From my experience working in the marijuana industry of Colorado and California, I can tell you that as long as a grow is compliant with local building codes, there should be no safety issues or reasons why the government should be involved," he said.

Electrical bypasses can be used to circumvent utility meters and to steal electricity, but they require drilling a large hole through concrete foundations or walls to tap into the underground outside hydro lines. Growers often will make their own electricity or steal it so their bills don’t give their operation away to law enforcement.

"Utility bills are not protected records," Columbia Police Department spokesman Joe Bernhard said. "(CPD) can have access to them and it does not require a search warrant or subpoena. (CPD) does not monitor them, though. I guess they would be accessed on a case-by-case basis to see what comparison utility rates would be."

The most recent marijuana grow bust in Columbia happened Jan. 11, 2013, at 314 N. Eighth St. According to a news release from CPD, Brenner Dawson, 32, was arrested after officers observed marijuana buds in his living room, along with 70 marijuana plants and equipment to grow and harvest them. In recent years, the Columbia Police Department has seized as many as 400 plants at a time. Bernhard said the police department hasn’t tracked the number of marijuana grows they’ve uncovered over the years.

Dakota Bev, Dawson’s neighbor, said she had no idea he was running a grow operation.

Marijuana has a distinct odor that neighbors may be able to recognize, so growers either maintain a closed growing environment or use charcoal filters.

“I had no idea,” Bev said. “I never even saw anyone come in or out of that house.”

Marijuana grows have not been a problem within the residence halls on campus. But last year, the MU Police Department made four arrests for the selling or manufacturing of marijuana and 196 arrests for the possession of marijuana on campus. This was a decrease from 2011, when there was one arrest for selling or manufacturing and 253 possession arrests. MUPD spokesman Scott Richardson said in an email all MUPD arrests are reported to the Missouri State Highway Patrol Uniform Crime Reporting program.

Current legislation regarding marijuana affects more than those running grow operations. Columbia voters passed both Propositions 1 and 2 in November 2004. Proposition 1 allows seriously ill patients to use medical marijuana with consent from a health care professional, and protects any doctor that suggests marijuana as an alternative. Under Proposition 2, cannabis has been made the "lowest priority" for law enforcement. Possession of cannabis under 35 grams (1.25 ounces) is punishable by a maximum $250 civil fine, with no possibility of criminal retribution, arrest or incarceration for first-time offenders.

In Missouri, possession or use of marijuana will result in a driver's license suspension if the offender is younger than 21 years old when the crime was committed. Selling, trafficking and distributing marijuana is a felony, and can result in sentences ranging from several years to life in prison and $5,000 to $20,000 in fines. Possession of drug paraphernalia is a misdemeanor and can result in up to one year in prison and $1,000 in fines. Selling paraphernalia is a felony and punishable by up to five years in prison and $5,000 in fines.

Missouri has enacted the drugged driving law, which forbids drivers from operating a motor vehicle if they have any detectable level of an illicit drug or drug metabolite present in their bodily fluids above a specific threshold. A person is guilty of DWI if he or she operates a motor vehicle while in an intoxicated or drugged condition. First offense is a class B misdemeanor, with imprisonment up to six months, successful completion of a substance abuse traffic offender program, and 30 days mandatory license suspension.

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