SFPD on fog-shrouded pot farms: too much green
SAN FRANCISCO — Socked in by coastal fog, gardeners in the city's Sunset District struggle to coax vegetables from plots rarely touched by sunlight. But recently, a certain crop has flourished behind closed doors.
Marijuana farms have become so widespread in this middle class neighborhood that the city's new police chief appealed to the public Wednesday for tips to help shut the operations down.
Apparently even in this pot-tolerant town, there is such a thing as too much green.
In the Sunset, police say row houses crammed with as many as 2,000 marijuana plants bear the marks of classic criminal enterprises.
Raids on three dozen homes and warehouses have uncovered 20 guns, more than 8,000 plants and nearly $85,000. Investigators believe that organized crime is keeping the drugs, cash and weapons flowing. Often once grow houses are raided, police said, their backers just set up new operations down the street.
"All this has led to the creation of a very dangerous situation," Chief George Gascon said.
Growers are attracted by rents that are moderate by San Francisco standards. Coastal winds sweep pot's skunky smell away.
Beyond the concern about drug-ripoff shootouts and deals gone bad, officials said the real worry is the potential for fire from houses gutted to create intensive urban farms.
At a news conference Wednesday, San Francisco Fire Marshal Barbara Schultneis said growers rewire the homes to avoid detection of the huge spike in energy use needed to grow pot. Shoddy electrical work can spark blazes she said, as can hot grow lights used to simulate sunshine.
Houses in the Sunset often share common walls, which allows fires to spread quickly. Growers often nail plywood to the insides of windows to keep out natural light and prying eyes, investigators said. As a result, fires can burn longer without being noticed.
City firefighters typically battle two blazes a year caused by marijuana growing operations, Schultneis said. This year they have already fought four, including one at a warehouse that partially collapsed onto a firefighter, causing serious injuries.
Conflict over grow houses has long been an issue in many small towns along California's North Coast, the heart of the state's pot-growing territory. The boom in San Francisco's indoor growing operations comes at a time when legalizing marijuana across the state has become a hot topic, and many pro-pot activists feel they are gaining traction with politicians and voters.
The trend toward acceptance spurred by the spread of medical marijuana — legal under state law — has led to a common feeling that pot has essentially become legal, especially in liberal bastions like San Francisco.
Many residents pride themselves on the city's well-established medical marijuana industry, which city agencies regulates like other businesses. Police even found that four of the 36 growing operations they raided in recent months complied with city and state medical marijuana regulations and let them keep their crop.
Delivery services bring pot to patients' doors, and one politician is exploring ways for the city to distribute and tax medical marijuana itself.
So it has surprised some that since arriving from Mesa, Ariz., in August, Gascon has launched his tenure as chief with multiple initiatives taking on the drug trade. He endured online jeering after it was reported that during his first tour of the city as chief, he was amazed to see drugs dealt openly in the Tenderloin, a district well-known as a magnet for addicts.
But Gascon said the crackdown on grow houses in the Sunset has nothing to do with a political stance on pot.
"This is not an argument about legalization or not legalization. This is really about public safety," Gascon said. "Quite frankly, we could end up burning an entire city block."
By MARCUS WOHLSEN (AP)