Around the country, investigators are increasingly seeing suburban homes in middle-class and well-to-do neighborhoods turned into indoor marijuana farms.
LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. — In Coldwater Creek, a middle-class housing development outside Atlanta, the neighbors mind their own business and respect each other’s privacy — ideal conditions, it turns out, for growing marijuana in the suburbs.
Police this month raided an utterly ordinary-looking brick house and broke up a pot-growing operation with 680 plants under bright lights.
“You’d never know from the outside. I guess that’s the idea,” said Doug Augis, who lives with his pregnant wife and a toddler in Coldwater Creek. “That doesn’t give you a really good feeling.”
Around the country, investigators are increasingly seeing suburban homes in middle-class and well-to-do neighborhoods turned into indoor marijuana farms. Typically investigators find a house that is empty save for a mattress, a couple of chairs, some snacks in the fridge and an elaborate setup of soil-free growing trays.
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Grow houses have been a problem for years in California and Canada, but investigators are now seeing scores of them in the South and New England. In the past six weeks alone, more than 70 have been uncovered in northern Georgia — nearly 10 times last year’s total for the entire state.
Indoor pot farms also have been discovered in recent months in residential areas of New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, New York, North Carolina and Florida. (In fact, the phenomenon has inspired a cable TV show, “Weeds,” starring Mary-Louise Parker as a single mom who grows and deals pot out of her suburban home.)
Crackdowns in Canada and elsewhere have apparently led some operators to move into parts of the United States where the public and police are not as familiar with the operations and less likely to detect them, authorities say.
In Georgia, the latest busts averaged about 200 plants per house. With each plant yielding $4,000 on average per harvest, that works out to about $3.2 million per year, considering the plants can be harvested every three months.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) said more than 400,000 plants with a potential annual value of $6.4 billion were seized from grow houses in the U.S. last year, up from about 270,000 the year before. That is less than 10 percent of the marijuana plant seizures in the U.S.; most pot is grown outdoors on farms and in ditches, backyards and gardens.
Grow houses typically grow marijuana hydroponically — that is, using a nutrient solution instead of soil. They also use 24-hour-a-day lighting to produce plants more rapidly. The marijuana is usually cut, dried and packaged on site.
Typically, the windows are covered up, and the electrical system is rigged to hide how much juice is being used.
The big advantage of such operations is the privacy that comes with being in a community full of people so busy that they don’t know the neighbors well and pay little attention to what is going on next door.
When Tom Paige met a woman living three doors down last summer, she told him that she and her husband wouldn’t be around much.
“As I remember, they had some kind of boat business in Florida and they were splitting time between here and there. I didn’t think anything of it,” said Paige, president of the homeowners association in Waterford Place, another Lawrenceville neighborhood where a grow house was found.
“They were taking care of the house and taking care of the yard,” he said.
“As we found out later, they were taking care of other things.”