A police officer fills a bag with marijuana plants to be taken away as evidence… (Wilfredo Lee / Associated…)
Reporting from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. — Nationwide demand for high-potency marijuana has turned Florida into a top producer of hydroponic weed, and hundreds of people are turning their homes into lucrative grow houses, local law enforcement said.
The illegal drug nurseries are hidden everywhere from million-dollar homes to run-down apartments, putting unsuspecting neighbors in serious danger, police said. Some grow houses are discovered only after explosions or fires.
Last year, more grow houses were seized in Florida than in any other state, despite a drop in overall numbers, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration said. Florida law enforcement agencies raided 818 houses; the next highest was California, with 791.
Not all agencies report their findings to the DEA.
The heart of the industry is in South Florida, where police have burned more than 1,000 plants this year in undercover stings under a program called the South Florida High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.
Now growers are learning high-tech tricks to hide their plants from investigators.
"The bad guys are getting smarter, and we're not finding them all," said Capt. Joe Mendez, who oversees the program's marijuana task force.
Growers are rewiring homes to steal electricity from utility lines to avoid suspiciously high electric bills, police said. The indoor nurseries use 1,000-watt light bulbs to help speed up plant cycles and run air conditioning constantly to cool the hot lights.
Many growers are also using closed-circuit cameras to monitor their homes from afar. Police sometimes raid grow houses and find no one inside, Mendez said. Large-scale growers have moved to rural Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties to evade nosy neighbors and police surveillance.
But shoddy electric wiring and intense heat from lights often turn the homes into ticking time bombs, said Delray Beach Police Sgt. Phil Dorfman, who works in the department's narcotics unit.
In February, a grow house exploded on a quiet street in unincorporated Broward County. Neighbors said they felt the explosion and compared the sound to a plane crash.
South Florida's climate plays a part in the area's large number of grow houses, Hollywood Police Lt. Norris Redding said. No one thinks twice about a house that runs air conditioning year-round.
Most people think these homes are found only in poor neighborhoods, but that's not true, Redding said.
Authorities said they busted a grow house in March on a well-kept street in Boca Raton. Dana Carvello called police after two robbers invaded his house and tied him up. When officers arrived, the robbers were gone, but police said they found an elaborate grow house in the garage.
They seized 24 plants and Carvello, 34, was arrested on a charge of cultivating marijuana.
The property owners said they had no idea marijuana was being cultivated.