June 14, 2007 — -- That new family that just moved in down the street? With the kids' bikes in the driveway and the basketball hoop?
Police say with what they've seen lately, that "family'' could be raising pot plants instead of children.
Law enforcement agencies around the country tell ABC News' Law & Justice Unit that they've uncovered the latest scam in the American war on drugs -- high priced McMansions in leafy, high-end suburbs housing multimillion dollar hydroponic marijuana-growing operations. Cops call them grow houses.
Watch Senior Law & Justice Correspondent Jim Avila's report on World News With Charles Gibson on Thursday.
Potent, bright green buds of hydroponic marijuana have become more lucrative per pound than cocaine in some areas, law enforcement officials say, and homegrown operations are popping up all over the nation -- in California, Florida, Connecticut and New Hampshire, even Cleveland, Ohio.
It's a crime trend that's troubling the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which released a report last month saying that marijuana potency has nearly doubled since 1983 -- leading to what the ONDCP calls a spike in marijuana addiction.
In an interview with ABC News, the director of Drug Control Policy for the ONDCP, John Walters, said that currently "the single biggest cause of addiction in the United States among illegal drugs is not cocaine, is not meth[amphetamine] is not heroin. It's marijuana.''
But government studies and addiction experts say that claim isn't borne out in the data.
Earlier this month, Lieutenant Greg Garland and members of the three-year old San Bernadino County Sheriff's Department's marijuana task force raided a home in Rancho Cucamonga, California. Garland said the bust was one of their biggest and provides a telling window into the remarkable sophistication and planning that can go into an investment in a marijuana McMansion.
Experts say that tighter security along our southern borders is forcing a shift in a marijuana smuggling. Unlike coca leaves, which require the equatorial climates of South American to grow well, marijuana can be harvested in the basements of upper-middle class America.
At the Rancho Cucamonga home, authorities said they found 634 plants in various stages of growth growing inside the house. Since each plant normally yields about a pound of pot, which at this level of potency has a wholesale value of $3,500 and a street value double that, according to government figures, there was enough weed in the home to reap more than $4 million. The home sold for $695,000, with a $556,000 mortgage. Operational costs were estimated at approximately $50,000, Lt. Garland told ABC News.
The house was using enough electricity to power the whole block, Garland said. In a tactic that even law enforcement officials said showed impressive criminality, local power lines were carefully rerouted and rigged so that if someone from the power company tested the home's electricity meter, it would instantly shut down power usage to that of a normal home.
Lt. Garland said that his task force has raided about 50 marijuana McMansions this year so far, and have traced the owners back to criminal gangs from a variety of different ethnic groups.
"A lot of it is, within [a criminal] organization, if we arrest one [person], finding out who their friends are or other relatives and who they associate with,'' Garland said. "Other times, it's as common as people calling our weed tip line and leaving us information and we look into it and find houses just like this.
Garland said the marijuana McMansion business is not limited to one ethnic crime organization or another.
Neighbors of the raided California home who spoke to ABC News characterized the home's residents as strangely quiet and secretive. The fruits of the raid, they said, answered puzzling questions they had had about the house for some time.
"We never saw them,'' said neighbor Joan Howell. "And this is a really friendly neighborhood. Everyone knows each other. We're always outside and we never saw them."
Neighbor Jean Mendez agreed.
"The day they moved in, I went to go meet them and they weren't interested in meeting me. They seemed very nice but they kind of shushed their two year old to come say hi to me and kind of said, 'I don't speak English.' And they smiled. They seemed to be very nice people. But I never talked to them.
"It was kind of a weird situation, [be]cause they were never washing their car. They never had their kids outside playing. They, um, never wanted to talk to us and we would see them from the front yard just going from the car into the house or a car backed up to the garage backwards, like they were loading something up. But never in a year did we talk to them or see their kids playing or never walking to the school bus."
"It's a very nice neighborhood,'' Mendez concluded. "And it's a very close neighborhood. We all do progressive dinners, we have block parties, spontaneous block parties all the time. We always go to each other's houses for birthdays. If you want to have a party make sure it's big because just the neighbors alone is a big group. And they were never part of it because we never knew them,'' she said of the family living in the raided home.
To Walters of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, homes like these pose as potent a danger to the community at large and the "front" families living in the grow houses as meth labs and crack cocaine labs.
He said that growers "sometimes use carbon dioxide gas to increase the carbon dioxide level in the house.
"I have been in grow houses that have been seized in Vancouver where you are frightened to see little children's toys, brightly colored three-wheel bikes on the ground and they obviously have gas tanks there, where they have increased the carbon dioxide level in the house. That, coupled with the electrical wiring, which is not done in a professional manner has frequently caused fires in a lot of places and the open chemicals for hydroponic grows, as well as fertilizers in the context where you have children is of course, very dangerous."
Walters said growers do it indoors these days because they have more control over the process and can produce maximum potency. He said more than 100,000 plants have been eradicated by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies so far this year .
Growing operations like these are an outgrowth of the wild popularity of marijuana strains developed in the 1990s in the Pacific Northwest and Canada, Walters said. With street brand names like "BC Bud" for British Columbia and "Northern Lights,'' pot has become as slickly packaged and marketed any popular American product.
Walters told ABC News that marijuana is "the largest cause of treatment need among adults."
"Sixty percent of the estimated 7 million people we need to treat for dependency or abuse of illegal drugs, 60 percent are dependent on marijuana,'' he said.
He said his office is on a campaign to underscore what he believes is a laissez-faire attitude among Americans to the dangers of marijuana use. Walters said that a generation of baby boomers wedded to the notion that marijuana is harmless are fooling themselves, at least in terms of today's high-end pot market.
"Marijuana is the only illegal drug where we have to try and explain to people that what we've found, and what the statistics [show], and what the consequences are, are worse than they think,'' Walters said. "Nobody thinks [methamphetamine] is a soft drug. Nobody talks about heroin or cocaine as 'okay, we can just tolerate it.''' Additionally, he said, "we understand the disease of addiction in a way nobody understood it in the 1970s, the 1960s, even the early 1980s. Science, investments in brain imaging, and millions and millions of dollars of study have helped us understand what happens here."
"We've done this with smoking,'' he said at another point. "We've done this with drinking and driving, we've done this with seat belts."
The White House ONDCP is a component of the Executive Office of the President, according to its Web site, which says that the office's "principal purpose is to establish policies, priorities, and objectives for the Nation's drug control program. The goals of the program are to reduce illicit drug use, manufacturing, and trafficking, drug-related crime and violence, and drug-related health consequences."
In fact, marijuana is second only to alcohol as the drug most detected in impaired drivers, fatally injured drivers and motor vehicle crash victims, according to Harvard economics professor Jeffrey Miron, who cited U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency statistics. He said the figures show that almost as many young people drive under the influence of marijuana as alcohol.
American drug abuse in general certainly represents one of the biggest challenges policy makers face today. With an estimated 15 million marijuana users, 4.4 million prescription drug abusers, 2.5 million cocaine users, 600,000 methamphetamine users, and a half million heroin addicts, according to Columbia University neuroscientist Dr. Carl Hart, the United States is bustling market for mind-bending substances.
The economic costs of overall drug abuse was placed at $180.9 billion in 2002, according to ONDCP statistics -- a 5.34 percent increase from 1992. Those figures, Walters said, include $128.6 billion in lost productivity and another $36.4 billion for law enforcement, social work and other related services.
But critics of the ONDCP's assessments vigorously challenge the government's claims.
A quarter of the people who try heroin become addicted, Hart said, and a full third of those who try tobacco become addicted.
"Is marijuana a gateway drug?" Hart asked rhetorically. "It's a difficult question because I think people focus on, 'you try marijuana you're going to go on to other drugs,' when the vast majority of the folks who [use] marijuana do not go on to other drugs. But certainly, those individuals who've tried cocaine and they have tried heroin, most of them have used marijuana. And most of them have used alcohol underage, and most of them have smoked tobacco as well. So if you think about 'gateway' in that sense, certainly you can say it's a gateway. But what is the meaning of gateway when you put it together like that?"
According to a National Institute on Drug Abuse -- the drug abuse and addiction research arm of the National Institutes of Health - the latest treatment data indicates that in 2002 marijuana was the primary drug of abuse in about 15 percent (289,532) of all the admissions to treatment facilities in the United States. Marijuana admissions were primarily male (75 percent), white (55 percent) and young (40 percent were in the 15-19 age range). Those in treatment had begun use at an early age; 56 percent reported abusing marijuana by age 14 and 92 percent had reported abused it by 18.
San Bernadino County Sheriff's Lt. Garland said that marijuana users are not given to crime or violence to obtain drugs.
Marijuana is "surely not as addictive as methamphetamines or heroin or cocaine,'' Garland said. "The constant user or abuser of substances like methamphetamine or cocaine, you'll see them in a state where they are coming down off of something such as methamphetamine and they want to get high again and they'll go out and commit robberies or murders or whatever they can to get some money to go back and get additional methamphetamine or cocaine.
"We haven't seen that with marijuana?We haven't seen that propensity to violence as such with other drugs.''
ABC News' Ellen Davis, Elizabeth Tribolet, Chris Francescani, Mary Harris, Amy Malick and Lauren Pearle contributed to this report.