California Weed

Complaints of illegal pot grows in Sacramento County are soaring, particularly in these neighborhoods

In a south Sacramento neighborhood dotted by industrial warehouses, a team of about 16 deputies and probation officers with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department crept toward the black iron gates blocking entrance to a house on McNie Avenue Tuesday morning.

Using a speaker system, a deputy instructed anyone inside the home to come outside with their hands over their head. Two dogs barked from the other side of a high wooden fence.

The Sheriff’s Department targeted the house after getting an anonymous tip that someone was stealing large amounts of electricity, a common sign of an illegal marijuana grow, said Andrew Miller, a deputy with the problem-oriented policing unit in the department’s Central Division who was leading the operation.

Sheriff’s deputies had arrested the owner of the  home, Thach Trong Tran, 42, earlier that morning, stopping him in his gray Mercedes on nearby Florin Road after he was seen leaving the house.

Tran told officers that no one else was in the home, but deputies were still cautious. A judge-signed warrant gave them permission to open the electric roll gate and come onto the lot, but deputies needed Tran’s help controlling his dogs. Tran, who was momentarily uncuffed, led one of the dogs into the back of a patrol car and the other into a forest green truck parked in front of the house, a window cracked for fresh air.

Inside the house, officers found 183 small plants, 29 pounds of processed marijuana, a gun, scales and over $5,000, Miller said. Tran was booked into the Sacramento County Main Jail later that day and remained there Friday afternoon. He faced felony marijuana cultivation, power theft and misdemeanor marijuana sale charges, jail logs showed.

“The plants were fairly small; they seemed like they were in the beginning stages of the grow cycle,” Miller said. “There’s a garage that’s been converted into a grow room and three other rooms have been set up to either dry or grow marijuana.”

Such scenes are becoming increasingly familiar to deputies with the department, who this year alone have responded to hundreds of calls related to illegal marijuana grows in the unincorporated areas of Sacramento County. Sheriff’s data provided to The Sacramento Bee through a Public Records Act request show deputies responded to 992 calls related to illegal marijuana grows in 2016, up from 511 calls in 2014.

The surge in calls regarding illegal pot grows in Sacramento County comes even as the state is poised to permit commercial cultivation of marijuana for recreational use. Local jurisdictions such as Sacramento County retain the right to decide whether to allow such operations, however.

Some jurisdictions, such as the city of Sacramento, have rushed to cash in on the potential source of new business. The county, so far, has said it won’t allow commercial grows.

The county’s decision not to embrace commercial pot farming within its boundaries hasn’t stopped the industry from growing, however. The county doesn’t have a dedicated team of deputies to target marijuana. Instead, the task of policing illegal growers falls to small problem-oriented policing teams like the one in the county’s Central Division, which is based in south Sacramento.

The task is overwhelming, said Sgt. Ray Duncan, who heads the Central Division team.

“We need more staffing,” Duncan said. “We just don’t have the man power. We can’t keep up.”

Many of the county’s complaints about illegal marijuana grows come from south Sacramento, the data show. Neighborhoods in the northern part of the county, such as in North Highlands and Antelope, also saw multiple visits by law enforcement in the past four years, but the number of calls was not as high as in the urbanized areas of south and southeastern Sacramento County. Rural portions of the county had far fewer calls, though there was a smattering in Galt and Wilton.

Three south Sacramento hotspots were the most visited by Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies in connection to suspected marijuana grows in the last four years:

▪ Deputies responded 253 times to complaints about properties located east of Highway 99 between Stockton Boulevard, 47th Avenue and Highway 99.

▪ A 1.9-square-mile portion of the county east of Stockton Boulevard and between Gerber Road and Stevenson Avenue generated 171 calls connected to marijuana grows.

▪ The most visited area was near James Rutter Middle School between Florin and Power Inn roads, Gerber Road and Stockton Boulevard, where deputies went on calls related to pot grows 340 times since July 2013.

Lindale Drive, a street of modest ranch homes that stretches for more than a mile in that area, was visited by police on 30 separate occasions in connection with marijuana grows. Police eventually seized 605 marijuana plants at four of the 11 homes visited on the street, according to the data. Nearby, on Chandler Drive, deputies made more than two dozen calls, finding hundreds of plants in May of 2016 alone.

Illegal marijuana grows

Calls related to suspected illegal marijuana in unincorporated Sacramento County are most prevalent in the Fruitridge and Florin areas. Number of calls in each area between July 2013 and June 2017:
Note: Sheriff’s department data does not include cities.
Source: Bee analysis of data from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department

At some of those locations, deputies made several attempts to get permission to enter the house, only to find that growers had moved plants out before police could get in.

The data provided to The Sacramento Bee included every call a deputy said was related primarily to illegal marijuana growing in the computer-aided dispatch software used by the department, said Deputy Tess Deterding, a legal adviser with the sheriff’s office. Other calls that dealt with marijuana grows but that were marked by deputies with a different category, such as being gang-related, were not included in the data set. Information about the marijuana calls covers the period between July 2013 until June 30 of this year.

In Sacramento County, recreational users are allowed to grow up to nine plants as long as they are indoors and the grows are approved by the property owner. State law allows six plants for recreational users.

The Board of Supervisors voted to ban commercial marijuana grows earlier this year, and kept the number of plants allowed for medical marijuana patients capped at nine, said principal planner Chris Pahule.

Statewide, California was a hub for illegal indoor grows last year, with police seizing more than 313,000 plants from such operations – 75 percent of all indoor plants taken by law enforcement across the country, according to statistics from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Patrick Kennedy, the supervisor overseeing a portion of south Sacramento, said he is aware of the large number of marijuana grows in his district and is concerned about their impact. Kennedy’s district recently has had a high number of home invasions and armed robberies – a crime wave that targeted the Asian American community. Some of those incidents may have been related to the illegal grows, Kennedy said.

The Sheriff’s Department announced the arrest of Nicholas Stephan Valadez in July, naming him as the gunman who killed a man inside an illegal grow house on the 5500 block of Enrico Boulevard near Fruitridge Road last year. Detectives said there were signs of forced entry at the home and that the motive was likely robbery.

Some grows rely on illegal electrical wiring to steal power or increase the amount of power to the house – a hazard for the entire neighborhood, Duncan said. “They’ll tap into the power before the meter,” Duncan said. “That in itself is extremely dangerous.”

Kennedy was the lone dissenter on the Board of Supervisors during a vote that established the county’s marijuana ordinance and outlawed commercial grows in April. Supervisor Phil Serna was absent for the vote.

Commercial cultivation could help the county regulate the industry and would likely help authorities dial in on growers who don’t comply with local rules, he said. By not allowing marijuana grows in the county, local leaders are also missing out on state grants for local governments who allow commercial grows in their jurisdiction.

“We can’t regulate it as long as it’s illegal, and just to say that it’s not happening does not resolve it,” Kennedy said of the pot grows. “How do we deal with the problem that is here, and in my opinion, is not going to go away?”

Nashelly Chavez: 916-321-1188, @nashellytweets

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