This article was originally published in the March/April 1999 issue of Home Energy Magazine. Some formatting inconsistencies may be evident in older archive content.


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Home Energy Magazine Online March/April 1999

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The Drug House--A Remodeling Job to Avoid

Marijuana (Cannabis sativa) is a lucrative cash crop, bringing in up to $6,000/lb on the right streets, and it can easily be grown in an inconspicuous house in an average suburban neighborhood. All it needs is lots of light--that is, lots of electricity. In your next remodeling job, you may want to think twice if your customers ask you to install grow lights or a sprinkler system in the attic or basement!

Bright Lights, Big Cash Crop As most plant lovers know, growing plants indoors takes lots of artificial light--especially if the plants shouldn't be drinking in the real stuff on the front windowsill. So grow lights substitute for Mother Nature, shining on the illegal crop and swelling the electric load to monstrous proportions.

This huge energy consumption sometimes allows law enforcement officials to locate drug crops. For example, one recent bust in Toronto turned up 2,400 plants growing under 62 1,000W grow lights. Even with eight daily hours of lights-out, that's almost 1,000 kWh a day--more than ten times the energy use in the average (non-growing) household.

Illegal drug farmers, of course, are secretive about their hobby and have gotten good at not red-flagging their local utility. The farmers in the Toronto case, like most, diverted electricity with a dangerous jumper arrangement around their meter. Others sometimes provide their own generation. A crop discovered in Eureka, California, sunning under 215 1,000W grow lights was powered in part by a 125 kW generator hidden outside the home. And what a home! The Associated Press reported that the more than 4,000 ft2 house was set in a meticulously landscaped yard full of flowers, with wall-to-wall cannabis inside.

Such professionals probably do their own retrofitting. But if they do call you in to rewire the house or install track lighting, keep in mind that, if you have direct knowledge of or participate in any way in the illegal cultivation of marijuana, and you do not report it, you could be considered to be aiding a criminal act and might possibly be prosecuted for it. Now that marijuana use is approved for medical purposes in some states, it is especially important to be aware of the local laws on the subject. California passed a law in 1996 allowing medical users of the plant to cultivate it in their own homes. Arizona has also passed a law allowing the medicinal use of marijuana, but not the home-grown stuff. Thirty-two other states have also passed legislation recognizing the medical benefits of marijuana and urging the Federal government to allow medicinal use of the drug. Because of the popular support for medical use, the laws governing the growth of marijuana will probably continue to change.

Growing Trends Officials at the U.S. Department of Justice's Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) have been tracking cases of indoor marijuana cultivation over the past decade. It is especially prevalent in Central and Northwest states, where farmers face long, cold winters with limited growing seasons.

DEA officials report that seizures of indoor growth of marijuana have increased by 36% over a 5-year period, from more than 2,800 locations busted in 1991 to more than 3,800 busted in 1996. In the past two years, it appears that the trend--or at least the arrests and seizures--have leveled off in the U.S. But farmers in Canada have discovered that hydroponics (soilless cultivation) raises a more potent plant. Drug enforcement officials in British Columbia are estimating that marijuana is now the region's most lucrative export crop, bringing in illegal revenues of $400 million to $3 billion and keeping U.S. customs agents busy.

Eyes Wide Open Most of the indoor marijuana seized in drug raids comes as a result of tips from insiders or nosy neighbors who've noticed a lot of traffic, according to DEA officials. Because they don't want to promote an unpopular Big Brother image, officials are reluctant to say whether their investigation of suspicious homes includes a review of unusual energy bills. Even though officers must always obtain a search warrant from a judge before they can examine such private information, not every search leads to an arrest. According to a recent article in PC Week magazine, one sheriff's department raided a home under suspicion and turned up only a group of computer programmers using energy-hungry test equipment for their start-up business.

DEA public information officer Shirley Armstead says the agency is occasionally contacted by utility personnel who've spotted gargantuan bills for customers who, curiously, aren't complaining. Still, it's rare for utilities to pick up on one or two red flags out of the millions of customers they serve. One utility in the northeast says it might notice if a home's average electricity use rises much above about 1,500 kWh/month, but there is no industry-wide rule of thumb.

The DEA, however, isn't waiting around for utility reports. In some states (the agency prefers not to be specific), the DEA has begun a training program for utility personnel to help them spot harvesting activity and report it to the local authorities or to the agency's tip line. According to Armstead, the program targets people who read meters or otherwise visit customer homes regularly and clues them in on signs of cannabis cultivation and other drug-related activity. Publicly, the DEA has posted notices, manned tip lines such as Missouri's BadWeed hotline, and gotten the word out through their Web site at

DEA agents tell people to watch for an altered electric meter or a constantly running generator. Other signs include windows that are constantly steamed up due to the high humidity the plants require; covered basement windows; and a steady stream of visitors. A placid expression on the residents' faces might also be a giveaway. Unless, of course, they don't inhale.

--Sandy Cataldo
Sandy Cataldo is a freelance writer working in Massachusetts. She doesn't inhale.


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