At first glance, it had all the makings of a major drug bust. About 40 Lodi police and firefighters raided a commercial warehouse Tuesday, Sept. 14, and found 30 pot plants worth roughly $4,200, along with two pounds of what appeared to be crystal methamphetamine.
But the bust turned out to be, well ... a bust.
The Lodi man and his mother who rented the 1,500-square-foot shop had medical marijuana cards, making their small pot-growing operation perfectly legal. And the meth? That turned out to be plain old deodorizer used to mask the pungent smell of maturing marijuana plants.
But the case has highlighted the murky rules surrounding the legal cultivation of marijuana for medicinal use. Police are often forced to navigate the uncharted territory of determining which growing operations are legitimate and which are not.
“It puts the city in a very difficult position in terms of enforcement,” said Stephen Schwabauer, Lodi’s city attorney.
He said city officials have had to hold back from setting marijuana guidelines for law enforcement because state regulations are ever-changing, and any standards established by Lodi officials in the meantime will likely have to be altered.
The cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana isn’t governed by any California regulations. The state leaves it to county and city governments to establish pot-growing guidelines, which vary widely. For example, San Joaquin County allows 6 mature plants or 12 immature plants and up to 8 ounces of processed marijuana for legal operations. Sonoma County, meanwhile, allows the growing of up to 30 plants and permits the possession of three pounds of marijuana.
Although patients are required to receive a doctor’s prescription before obtaining a medicinal marijuana card, there is no system in place for various jurisdictions to keep track of who has them, according to George Mull, Sacramento attorney and founder of the California Cannabis Association. The result is that police have to decide which suspected pot building to raid and which to leave alone.
“You’re asking a police officer to act like a judge,” Mull said.
Police raided the warehouse on Auto Center Drive because neighboring businesses complained about the smell of marijuana wafting through the walls. Narcotics officers monitored the building for several days and unsuccessfully tried to contact the renter, Darren Dean.
“(The smell is) strong enough to upset us,” said Jeff Kester, owner of Embroidery Works next door to the growing house. “You’ve got to open the door so you don’t get a headache.”
Closer observation by narcotics investigators revealed that the building was using six times the amount of electricity commonly used by similar-sized tenants. Dean had told the property owner that the space was being used to store painting materials. Ladders, drop cloths and painting supplies were stored alongside the custom-built marijuana growing structure inside the small warehouse.
Part of the concern from city officials is safety. Firefighters frequently respond to fires started by poorly built marijuana growing equipment. Last month, an apartment in Boulder Creek near Santa Cruz was damaged by a fire sparked by jerry-rigged lighting fixtures in an in-house pot garden.
In fact, it is more common for pot growers to be cited for building code violations than for growing the drug itself, according to Mull. Growers frequently overtax indoor electrical lines by adding additional outlets for lights meant to nourish the plants. The moisture given off by indoor marijuana gardens can also lead to problems with toxic black mold.
Mull said he couldn’t think of any state law that specifically prohibits growing in industrial buildings, and the laws that apply to ordinary indoor vegetable growing generally apply to marijuana growing operations as well.
“Unless you have an ordinance in place, you don’t need a special permit (to grow marijuana),” he said.
But marijuana advocates like Mull and law enforcement officials agree that the lack of an official permit process has led to misunderstandings like the Dean raid.
“There’s no way to know unless someone puts a sign in front of their house saying they’re a legal grower,” said Gary Armstrong, retired Stockton police officer and past president of the California Narcotic Officers Association.
According to Lodi spokesperson Jeff Hood, the Lodi Fire Department spent $1,600 for 18 hours of overtime for fire responders for the Dean incident. The Lodi Police Department didn’t incur any extra cost from the raid, but Hood said the real costs come from lost opportunity and wasted time.
“It would be a lot easier if it was a legal prescription drug that you picked up at the pharmacy,” Schwabauer said.
In November, Californians will vote on whether to further broaden the definition of legal pot and enact some form of taxation. Proposition 19 permits local governments to impose and collect taxes from marijuana growers and sellers. Proponents hope the initiative will help clear up some of the confusion over how to regulate the substance. Law enforcement officials almost universally oppose the proposition, saying it will further muddy the waters of drug enforcement.
Regardless of whether the law passes, the sale and possession of marijuana remains illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act.
According to Dean’s neighbors, he has been allowed two weeks to harvest his crop before the property owner begins the process of evicting him.
“I’d like to know if this is legal or illegal — bottom line,” said Armstrong.
Contact reporter Ryan Campbell at firstname.lastname@example.org.