More Pot Busts Taking Place in Suburban Areas

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"BC Bud" is the name of a high-grade marijuana strain grown in British Columbia. Much of it is grown indoors, in warehouses and increasingly in homes. Now federal agents in California have busted a marijuana-growing ring that seems to be taking a page from the BC Bud handbook by growing their lucrative crop in suburban homes.

Federal agents in California say the pot farms they raided have all the markings of organized crime. The farms were found in unexpected places, many of them at suburban homes near Sacramento.

On a quiet street in suburban Elk Grove, an orange tag marks a two-story home. Detectives found several hundred marijuana plants at the house. Richard Maynard, who lives next door, says he really didn't know what his neighbors were up to.

"We never saw them," Maynard says. "They'd show up in the middle of the night, about 1 o'clock, with a moving van occasionally, not very often. They'd say hi if they showed up in the middle of the day, which was once a month maybe. They were just very quiet."

But inside the home was a marijuana factory, designed to create the greatest yields. Gordon Taylor is the Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the DEA office in Sacramento.

"This is not the hippy growing marijuana in his closet from back in the 1970s," Taylor says. "This is not Cheech and Chong."

Taylor says the plants seized from 41 homes linked to the case were capable of producing $74 million worth of pot in a year. Eight people have been arrested. They're all in their 20s, have Chinese surnames and San Francisco Bay Area addresses. Taylor says he believes this reaches beyond those already under arrest.

"What we're seeing here is very organized and extremely sophisticated in terms of the operation inside the homes," Taylor says. "And then just the purchase of the homes. You couple all that together, and you see it has all the markings of an Asian organized criminal group."

The details were the same with nearly all the recent pot busts in Sacramento-area homes. They were large, costing about half a million dollars, and usually in newer subdivisions. They were bought with 100-percent financing, no cash down — not an uncommon practice in California's real estate market.

The homes were then gutted and "remodeled" to grow pot. Windows were covered and electricity was pirated to avoid the meter. Lights and insulation were brought in along with drip watering systems.

Law enforcement officials say it's not an isolated problem. Seizures of indoor marijuana plants in California are up 81 percent this year.

There are likely many more marijuana growing rings like this one, that just haven't been discovered yet, says Kent Shaw, Assistant Chief of the California Department of Justice Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement. He says large-scale pot operations hidden behind stucco walls and picket fences have proven to be cash machines. The quality is better than outdoor marijuana varieties and can be harvested year round, rather than just once.

"If it's fairly high grade," Shaw says, the pot can net "anywhere from $3,500 to $6,000 a pound. For a minimal amount of investment, if you have a decent amount of square footage in a residence to grow it, there's a lot of return that's going to come back on your initial investment."

And that might explain why narcotics investigators are seeing more criminal organizations move into the marijuana business. Shaw says where once they may have dealt only in methamphetamine, cocaine or heroin, some groups now see marijuana as a low-risk high-profit alternative.

From member station KQED, Tamara Keith reports.

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