Police battle marijuana grow houses in Las Vegas area

Some people say marijuana isn’t a dangerous drug. Las Vegas police Lt. Laz Chavez isn’t one of them. Chavez is a supervisor in the Metropolitan Police Department’s Narcotics Section and operates SCORE, a task force dedicated to ridding the valley of a budding problem — marijuana grow houses, which have tripled in the valley in the last four years. Police have found hundreds of assault weapons, careless electrical wiring and toxic chemicals left in the wake of the growers.

“These guys aren’t the fun-loving hippies with a small garden in the backyard,” he said. “These are dangerous criminal groups doing this.” Police busted 138 grow houses across the Las Vegas Valley last year, up from 108 in 2009. In 2007 and 2008, police had seen a maximum of only 60 or 70 houses a year. Authorities are on pace to bust more than 200 houses this year, said Kent Bitsko, director of the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program in Nevada.

“That’s extremely high,” Bitsko said. Last year, Nevada ranked ninth in the nation in grow houses — almost all in the Las Vegas area. “If you put that in perspective, nearly all the indoor grows in Nevada came out of Clark County. We’re ninth in the nation, and basically that’s just from Las Vegas,” Bitsko said. “That’s pretty significant.” Chavez said the current economic and political landscape in Nevada has created a perfect storm for criminals. The prosecution for marijuana crimes isn’t nearly as stringent as harder drugs, such as methamphetamine and cocaine, he said.

“Criminals are willing to roll the dice on marijuana,” he said. Perhaps the biggest problem facing the SCORE team is also one of biggest problems facing Nevada — the foreclosure crisis. There is an abundance of empty homes available for buying or renting, and growers everywhere have taken notice. A good size grow house can hold more than 200 plants worth $3,000 apiece, as opposed to the $700-per-plant “ditch weed” recently found on Mount Charleston. Hydroponic plants also can be harvested more frequently — about three to five times a year.

Chavez said even seasoned growers from California are migrating to Las Vegas. The equipment used in growing operations can cost upwards of $50,000, and usually requires about a 1,500 square foot house. That house in Southern Nevada is much cheaper than a similar house in Southern California, which means greater profit margins for growers. “With this market, it’s almost a free-for-all right now,” he said. Because it’s legal in Nevada to grow up to seven plants with a medical marijuana card, Chavez said criminals believe enforcement will be lax if they’re caught with hundreds of plants.

“We don’t want to bust sick patients who are in compliance with the law,” he said. “If you are in compliance, you will never hear from us.” Under a constitutional amendment ratified by Nevada voters in 2000, the Legislature was required to provide a legal way for medical marijuana patients to obtain the drug. But contradictions in the resulting law and stepped up raids and arrests at numerous Las Vegas dispensaries have limited the ways medical marijuana can be obtained. Supporters of medical marijuana use are calling for the Legislature to clarify the law, but Bitsko said the increase in marijuana dispensaries is a big part of the influx of growers.

Two years ago, police weren’t seeing any dispensaries. So far this year, police have identified more than 60, he said. “The market drives everything, and there’s a high demand,” Bitsko said. “People say, ‘Why get it from California? Let’s grow it ourselves.’ ” A DANGEROUS GAME Marijuana is a billion-dollar illegal industry, and that much money creates dangerous competition.

Chavez knows about the danger first-hand. At a bust in May, a fleeing suspect crashed a vehicle into the side of Chavez’s police car. He injured his shoulder and had surgery last week. But Chavez said he is less concerned with his own injury and more concerned with the violence the criminals could bring to others. As of last week, the SCORE team had recovered 108 weapons, including military-style rifles, shotguns and handguns from houses this year.

“And it’s barely September,” he said. Bitsko said there were eight murders connected to the marijuana trade last year. “Over unpaid debts, disputes,” he said. “The typical reasons that dopers kill dopers.” Homicide Lt. Lew Roberts said the drug trade is a constant theme running through his section’s cases. Last year, 28-year-old Derecia Newman was killed and her 12-year-old daughter, De’Vonia, was injured in a marijuana-related robbery. When you’re selling marijuana out of the house, this happens more often than not,” Roberts said.

And it’s not just one or two groups behind the grow-house phenomenon, Chavez said. Most of the grow houses are independently run, although Chavez recalled some bigger busts. On Aug. 25, SCORE busted three grow houses operated by a Russian organized crime group and seized 25 pounds of marijuana, 17 firearms and 3,000 rounds of ammunition. Earlier this year, the team shut down an Asian crime group operating about six houses. With some drugs, certain demographics can be targeted. But that’s not the case with marijuana, he said.

“It’s whoever has the money to grow it,” Chavez said. “Whoever has the money and is willing to take chances.” GROWING AWARENESS Officers have gotten better at identifying their targets, which is one of the reasons there have been more busts. The SCORE team, which includes Las Vegas and Henderson police as well as the Drug Enforcement Administration, only began several years ago and is funded largely by federal dollars. SCORE received $80,000 from Bitsko’s program in March and had received $30,000 from other federal grants. The money is used to pay for a variety of expenses, include officers’ overtime and training.

Police use a variety of tactics to identify houses, including using infrared sensors and checking utilities for power usage, he said. But the majority of their information comes from citizens’ tips. People are starting to notice the signs of grow operations: neighbors appearing at odd hours, blacked out windows, the low humming sound produced by hydroponic lights and a skunky odor. “They didn’t know what they were smelling or seeing,” Chavez said. “Once we educate them, everything changes. That’s our biggest success story — getting the info out to the community.”

One under-reported effect of having so many grow houses, Chavez said, is an increased risk of house fires. There have been four or five house fires in the past year linked to grow houses. Growers bypass electrical panels and string wires throughout their houses, creating a fire hazard, he said. “It’s a recipe for disaster,” he said.

Chavez said that after a bust, parents and children are on the streets thanking officers for getting the pot out of their neighborhood and away from their schools. The police depend on tips, which have been coming frequently in the past year. Chavez estimated that SCORE busts three or four homes a week. “I don’t want to say we’re overwhelmed, but I can tell you this — we get plenty of work.”

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